mike hynes USE THIS headshot

Want Students to Succeed Almost Every Possible Way? Start a Play Club

Michael Hynes is superintendent of the Port Washington, Long Island School District, just outside New York City. He’s also a Fulbright Specialist, TEDx speaker, author of “Staying Grounded: 12 Principles to Transform School Leader Effectiveness” — and a big part of the documentary “Chasing Childhood.”

Please Note: Hynes graduated in the bottom 10% of his high school class, so he knows a bit about kids who are checked out.

Play Club is a Silver Bullet for A Whole Lot of Students, by Michael Hynes

I’ve been sharing the benefits of children and play in our schools for well over eight years, especially since the pandemic subsided. I’m hard-pressed to think why parents, educators, board trustees and superintendents around the nation do not embrace all the positive effects of giving children the opportunity to play before, during, and after school. It is literally an investment that delivers compound interest year after year, after year.

Play is an essential part of children’s development, contributing to their physical, social, emotional, and cognitive well-being. The Let Grow Play Club (see video below) is the best way for all students to have the opportunity to experience the following benefits that my students get. Please note that both mixed-age play and unstructured play offer unique benefits for children in our schools:

The Benefits of Mixed-Age Play:

Social Development: Children learn to interact with peers of different ages, fostering social skills such as cooperation, empathy, and communication.

Leadership and Mentoring: Older children often take on leadership roles, becoming mentors or role models for younger ones. This dynamic promotes a sense of responsibility and empathy among the older children.

Cognitive Growth: Mixed-age play encourages cognitive development as children engage in activities that require problem-solving, negotiation, and shared decision-making.

Reduced Bullying: With mixed-age play, there is often less emphasis on competition and physical strength, leading to a more inclusive environment and reduced likelihood of bullying. The presence of younger kids often makes older kids more empathic.

Diverse Perspectives: Children of different ages bring varied experiences and perspectives to play, enriching the learning environment and broadening each child’s worldview.

The Benefits of Unstructured Play

“Unstructured Play” means play not organized by the adults.

Creativity and Imagination: Unstructured play allows children to develop their creativity. They can invent scenarios, create games, and use their imagination freely.

Independence: Unstructured play gives children the autonomy to make decisions, solve problems, and manage their time. This fosters a sense of independence and self-confidence.

Physical Development: Activities like climbing, running, and jumping during unstructured play contribute to the development of gross motor skills, coordination, and overall physical fitness.

Stress Reduction: Play is a natural stress reliever for children. Unstructured play provides a break from academic pressures and allows children to relax and have fun.

Emotional Regulation: Through unstructured play, children learn to navigate and express their emotions. They develop emotional resilience and learn how to cope with various situations.

Communication Skills: Children engage in verbal and non-verbal communication during unstructured play, enhancing their language skills and the ability to express themselves.

Executive function: Children plan out what they’re going to do — build a fort, hide behind the tree — and execute it. When, inevitably, things change and they have to pivot, they learn flexibility.

Cooperation: Children learn they have to take turns or no one wants to play with them. They also see they can do more together than alone — drag the sand bag, build the tower.

Making Friends: Children are having a hard time making friends and this distresses them. In play, they naturally make friends because they are doing something fun together, unself-consciously.

When Kids Play, They Grow

Incorporating both mixed-age play and unstructured play into the school environment through the Let Grow Play Club creates a balanced and holistic approach to fostering children’s development. It encourages them to learn through their experiences, build social connections, and develop skills that extend beyond the academic realm.

I Promise You It is EASY to Start a Play Club!

When I present the following benefits, I usually hear the Top 5 Reasons why schools can’t participate in such a club which makes me laugh every time.

1.     It costs too much: No, it doesn’t. Schools spend more money on paper towels and pencils. The cost is minimal and please look at all the benefits!

2.     We don’t have time: Yes, you do. You can do this before or after school. Just like any other club.

3.     Kids will get hurt because of lack of supervision: No, they won’t. In fact, there is most likely less risk than students going outside for recess, but that’s not the point. You want children to foster independence. Not having adults hovering over them is one of the greatest gifts you can give them.

4.     We don’t have anything for the students to play with: Yes you do. Stop with the excuses, most schools already have everything a student would need to play with. You will be surprised what kids can make into a game. Or have kids bring “junk” from home to play with — old suitcases, boxes, bike wheels. Anything.

5.     I can’t do this in every school: You may not be able to at first, but I guarantee you once you see the benefits in action, you will make it a priority in doing so.

The Bottom Line, Speaking as a Superintendent:

I can go on and on with a list of reasons I have heard over the years…but I won’t. The bottom line is, if I said to you children will become more independent, learn how to manage their emotions, become creative, look forward to coming to school and perform better in the classroom for a nominal fee, would you sign up and try?

I believe many educators would in a heartbeat. I challenge all our schools across the United States to explore and try a Let Grow Play Club at least one time. You won’t be disappointed. I know my students, teachers and parents aren’t.

In fact, take a look!


The Implementation Guide for Schools is available free, just fill out the form. We’ve also got a parent version, and materials in Spanish on request.

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