Middle Schoolers Must Play

Students share about their engagement in and ownership of their own play time

“Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play.”
—Heraclitus (554 – 483 BC)

As middle school educators, we see a growing population of adolescents who struggle with executive skills and social problem-solving. We believe the struggle with both constructs is correlated with the reduction of play time and choice. At the middle school level, play time becomes less of a priority at school and less of a commodity outside of school. Students tell us their daily lives are prescheduled and that they are constantly programmed. These same students who express frustration about being overprogrammed demonstrate minimal passion for the activities that fill their days. The phenomenon of being overprogrammed inevitably impacts student choice and the practices of initiating, planning, and self-evaluating—three critical executive skills. To formalize our understanding of “the play deficit” from the perspective of an adolescent, we created an online questionnaire to elicit open-ended responses from our students. Two hundred and fifty-six students, ages 10-14, replied to these questions about play. Their responses iterated the need for play and emphasized the importance of student choice and ownership of “play time.”

Student Feedback on Play

Our questionnaire began by asking students to provide their own definition of play and then posed questions about personal and daily choices that students make during their free time. Most student responses suggested that play should be fun and enjoyable. One third of the students included that play should involve a social component. This social element could occur in a shared physical space (being in the same room) or in the virtual world (online gaming, texting, FaceTime). A subset of students specified that play must include choice on the part of the child. Play is “doing whatever I want,” “doing something fun for you,” and “choosing who you want to do it with.” One eighth grader indicated that play is not something adults value, “playing applies to messing around and doing things I enjoy that are looked down upon.” It was surprising that several students were unable to define play in their own words. Nine students Googled the term play and copied the definition, while 10 students provided no definition at all.

The questionnaire went on to ask middle school students about the types of choices they are allowed to make on a daily basis. The most frequent personal choice reported involved food; what to eat and when. Other responses included the choice of when they study, what they study, and how much effort to put into studying. Twenty-three students (approximately 9%) stated they were not given the opportunity to make any choices for themselves during the day. One seventh grade student wrote, “I go to school, do homework, and go to sports activities,” while another seventh grader wrote, “My days are busy. My free-time is late at night.” An eighth grade student indicated all choices were dictated by adult permission, “I can make all my choices as long as my parents agree to it,” while another eighth grader wrote, “I make what I eat, when I get homework done, things like that. Everything else is planned by school or parents.”

When middle schoolers were asked to describe what they do in their free time, more than half of our students described engaging in electronic pursuits like gaming, playing on one’s phone, or browsing or interacting through social media. Engagement in athletic activities including organized sports and “playing outside” was the second most common response, while screen time, watching TV, YouTube, etc. was the third shared response. Reading for pleasure as well as pursuing creative endeavors like writing or playing music, creating art, photography, and programming were rated next, and general statements of “hanging out” with friends, families, or pets were also mentioned. Only four students indicated that they used their free time to “relax” and 15 students indicated they did homework in their free time. One eighth grader wrote, “LOL what free time?”

Insights from Student Feedback

Student feedback provided interesting insight regarding difficulties with defining play. The wondering here is whether the definition of play is difficult, at this age, because the time for it is minimal or if students simply struggled to find ways for the meaning of play. When asked about elements of play, middle school students made a point to emphasize personal choice; they want autonomy. Those daily choices most often included what they consume and when and how they study. When given freedom of time, student choices fall in sync with what we know to be typical adolescent choice: gaming, screen time, organized sports, reading, and pursuing personal interests. In general, student responses suggested that middle schoolers have little time to engage in choice play because their time is predetermined by structured activities—activities that are planned and controlled by adults in their lives. This feedback speaks to the rationale behind our initial concern regarding the connection between play and executive functioning and social problem-solving. Lack of free time and lack of choice has limited middle schoolers’ opportunities to initiate, plan, and organize. Presumably this lack of choice has also impacted personal investment and self-evaluation.

What This Means for Educators

As middle school educators, we must recognize the need for play in the lives of our students. We must make time for play inside, as well as outside of, the classroom. If your school has already built a mindset around the importance of play, you are on the right track. If not, then establishing this mindset and agreeing to the need for play should be the first step. The next step is to identify and protect time for recess; time that involves taking a break. During these breaks, students should engage in physical activity, mindfulness, or an exercise that includes reflection/process time. Screens should not be included as an option. Additionally, school leaders and teachers should identify practical ways to integrate play as well as student choice into their curriculums. If you are just beginning the implementation of “play” in the middle school classroom, choose projects that embed open-ended problem-solving that is student centered. Incorporate student goal setting and reflection into daily activities/assessments. If your culture of classroom play is more advanced, continue to include independent learning experiences that connect student choice with curricular objectives. These experiences are often referred to as design thinking routines and independent learning projects. Both constructs include creative thinking and planning between the student and the teacher. Ultimately, they allow for student autonomy, ownership, and sustained interest. The practice of thinking, planning, collaborating, and problem-solving will provide increased opportunities for students to develop executive functions and social problem-solving skills. Furthermore, it will allow students to make choices.

Final Thoughts

This research iterates the notion that play time for adolescents is critical. Defining what play time looks like for a middle school student and allocating time for play throughout the school day are important places to start. Allowing middle schoolers unstructured time to play without screens as well as personal choice within a structured educational program will engage and empower them. The more ownership students have in their learning the more likely they are to engage their executive skills and develop their planning, problem-solving, and reflective skills; skills that are necessary for a productive future.


Gray, P. (2013, September 18). The play deficit. Retrieved November 29, 2018, from Aeon website: https://aeon.co/essays/children-today-are-suffering-a-severe-deficit-of-play

Rhea, D. (2014). Give students time to play. Education Week, 33(22), 21. Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/02/26/22rhea.h33.html

Walker, T. (2017). Teach like Finland: 33 simple strategies for joyful classrooms. New York, NY: Norton.