Untamed Youth: British Columbia Schools Officially Recognize the Importance of Play

words :: Kieran Brownie

Play is so perfectly unproductive and pointless that the word itself barely gives the act any shape. It is hard to define, and yet within the purposelessness of it all, there exists a world of possibility and potential.

Even the dictionary definition of the word is a meandering, multifaceted affair. Primarily, play is “to engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.” But you can play or get played, or be a player. You can play a hunch or play the radio, play into (or out of) just about anything—and at the end of the day we must all play the game, lest the game play us. 

Learning the important stuff on Stump Lake, Squamish.

And now, play is playing a new role in early childhood education in BC. In 2019, the BC Ministry of Education released the Play Today handbook for BC educators; a detailed report on the subject. The findings are that when kids play, they are more willing to take the next step and push through thresholds (physical or intellectual) forging new connections in the brain and creating different avenues from which to approach problems. Quite literally, play opens the mind.

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This ability to adapt to our environment and self-regulate under stress is crucial for a healthy human. Charles E. Pascal, an author, professor and former Special Advisor on Early Learning to the Government of Ontario, describes this as “not about conforming to the expectations of social behavior; rather, self-regulation is about developing one’s own internal motivations for adapting to demands and challenges.” Standardizing play for all children in BC schools is a step towards recognizing that it’s no longer just about what to learn, but also how to learn.

In large part, these policy shifts are occurring because of increased access to Indigenous content, a result of the BC Government’s vow to uphold the 94 Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Residential Schools of 2015. This has created a place in BC classrooms for the First Peoples Principles of Learning—a traditional way of knowing and a holistic approach to education defined as a “comprehension of the parts of something as intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole.”

As adults, perhaps it’s time we also contemplate what play means in our lives. Is it the self-serving pursuit of unproductive and pointless activities? Is it just “play” when we journey up to the high peaks under pre-dawn skies in the middle of winter? Or rip our bikes through the forest by headlamp?

One of these nine principles is that “Learning is [not only] holistic, [but also] reflexive, reflective, experiential, and relational (focused on connectedness, on reciprocal relationships, and a sense of place).” 

As adults, perhaps it’s time we also contemplate what play means in our lives. Is it the self-serving pursuit of unproductive and pointless activities? Is it just “play” when we journey up to the high peaks under pre-dawn skies in the middle of winter? Or rip our bikes through the forest by headlamp? The Play Today handbook states that effective learning shares neural pathways with successful life skills, and yet just because someone is a good skier doesn’t make them a good person, so at what point does this thing we call “play” end and the rest of our lives begin?

Maybe all this playing is just an opportunity to enhance how we learn and maybe learning is just another word for life. I think what I learned from all of this is if we continue to let the children play (and adults too) we’ll all learn how to live better.

Game on. 

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