The Lost Art of Neighborhood Play: How to Bring Play Back | Chicago North Shore Moms

Author: Carly Andrews, Head of School, Baker Demonstration School


Photographs taken of Baker Demonstration School in Wilmette, IL on January 17, 2019. (Photo: Heather Eidson)


Neighborhoods are quiet these days and pediatricians, educators, and psychologists are worried. What used to be prime time for fort building and scootering, for unbroken runs and games of tag, have quieted down as children are shuttled from one activity to the next.



Even spaces that for generations have been the sacred domains of play – preschool programs, kindergarten classes, and recess time – have swung with the pendulum’s rhythm: worksheets and desk rows have replaced the corner where the costumes once were housed. What many psychologists and educators fear most is the loss of this unstructured time. How might it impact a child’s typical development?



Unstructured, imaginative play is the key to so many aspects of a child’s cognitive growth, including language development, the nuances of socialization, and creative problem solving. What happens when it is removed? The research is clear on the neurological effects of play: “Play is not frivolous: it enhances brain structure and function and promotes executive function, which allows us to pursue goals and ignore distractions.” Without play’s influence on children, higher levels of toxic stress, delays in prosocial behavior, and underdeveloped executive functioning skills are the result.



Many Chicago and North Shore organizations, school leaders and teachers are also working to ensure the pendulum swings back to play-based experiences for children, experiences that are informed by a child’s development, rather than pressure from standardized tests.



Three thoughts on how to bring back play to your home:

  1. Remember the box is infinitely more interesting than the toy. While the toy offers limited possibility, the box offers unlimited potential for exploration. It is the difference between a tub of lego bricks and the box with step-by-step instructions for building the Millennium Falcon. Play environments at home allow children to build, design, create, experiment, explore and engage in play in the broadest sense of the word. As Michael Resnick, author of Lifelong Kindergarten, writes, “play doesn’t require open spaces or expensive toys; it requires a combination of curiosity, imagination, and experimentation.”
  2. Find time for uninterrupted, mixed-age play. Mixed-age, choice-based recess and after-school programs are the equivalent to the neighborhood play of prior generations. At Baker, our PLA program allows for children of different ages to co-create, imagine, and design together. There are no prefabricated worksheets or screens to distract. This dedicated time for unrestricted play, naturally allows for the language that develops through creative exploration, negotiation, and conflict resolution as children of different ages work together. It also gives permission for older children to engage in imaginative play with their younger peers, an ‘excuse’ they very often relish.
  3. Enjoy the styles of play that are emerging in your children. Howard Gardner, in a study on how children interact with toys, identified two primary styles of play: “Patterners” were children who were fascinated by the patterns and structures. Their early play was primarily found in block play and puzzles, while “dramatists” was a style to describe children who were interested in the social interactions and stories amongst their playthings. Both patternists and dramatists are valuable and different ways of creative exploration.



Meanwhile, our schools, particularly our preschool and elementary schools, need to realign with the norms of a child’s development in order to support their healthy development and ensure that teachers are smartly able to build upon the vital learnings that come from play. As the American Association of Pediatrics reminds us, “The lifelong success of children is based on their ability to be creative and to apply the lessons learned from playing.”


The robotics club meets after school at Baker Demonstration School on January 17, 2019. (Photo: Heather Eidson)



Editor’s note:
Join Baker on Saturday, October 12, 2019 for an afternoon design challenge where families can put their creative thinking and engineering know-how to the test by building their very own cardboard masterpiece. Families will play and build together with kids in the creative lead!

Register for this FREE event today!




Thank you to Chicago North Shore Moms supporter and sponsor, Baker Demonstration School for this engaging and ultra-relevant topic! For more information about Baker Demonstration School programming, application process and open houses, please visit their website:

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