How Legos Lead to Learning: Inside the Lower School's Second Day of Play

The Lower School is always bustling with activity. That was even more apparent on February 13, the School’s second Day of Play, which was a morning dedicated to allowing the students unstructured time and plenty of options. And “plenty” means “plenty.”

Legos in one room. Putty-making in another. Twister in another, alongside Battleship and Apples to Apples. There was dodgeball in the gym, train tracks sprawled on a classroom carpet, and a cacophony of xylophones echoing around the music classroom. Students made jewelry, sculpted with cardboard, and read in the library. And while the teachers were present, they supervised from a short distance away.

“Kids today don’t often have this hugely unstructured time where they have to figure out what they want to do, how to do it, and how to problem solve,” said 3rd grade teacher Eve Eaton. “There can be conflicts: ‘We’ve already started the game, and then someone else wants to join in—how do we include people in that way? How do we manage the rules of the game if an adult isn’t standing there?’”

Unstructured play has repeatedly been shown to be beneficial to students of all ages. Global Day of Play, an organization dedicated to restoring play in schools, began encouraging educators to incorporate a Day of Play into their schedule; now they report that more than 500,000 students have benefited from the unstructured time. Last year, the Lower School experimented with time set aside for self-directed activities in kindergarten and preK classes; this year, they expanded the program to the entire school—much to the delight of the students.

“It’s much better than doing a bunch of math or something, and I get to play and go anywhere in the School,” said Alyssa ’28, who was busily making a sculpture from an old Amazon box and some “disc things,” which is how she described a pile of discarded CD-ROMs. “Sometimes you need to just play around and let your mind relax.”

Adrian ’29 was locked in a game of Battleship but was still able to take a moment to share his thoughts on the academic benefits of the Day of Play. “When we play it helps us relax our brain muscles,” he said. “And then it helps us focus more on the lesson than just focusing on going outside to play at recess.”

Aidan ’29, Adrian’s Battleship opponent, also saw a social benefit. When he heard about the Day of Play, “I thought it was going to be really fun,” he said. “I can spend more time with my friends and get a better relationship.”

Spending time with friends was one of the goals of the day, but spending time with those outside a student’s typical social circle was another one.

“It’s kind of neighborhood play—you play with the kids who are doing what you want to, and it doesn’t matter if you’re in the same grade or not,” said Eaton. “Kids were doing the things they wanted to do, and it didn’t matter who was there; it was cool if they were doing it with somebody they usually didn’t get to see.”

“They should do it every Friday,” said Ana ’31, who added that she enjoyed spending time with her sister, who is in preK. “Sometimes I only see her in the hallway, but today we made putty.”

“There is research out there that says that kids who have unstructured time increase their brain capacity because they have to figure things out,” Eaton said. “If a student wants to make a house out of popsicle sticks, they have to figure out how to do that without anybody telling them. I watched one girl make a huge tower out of popsicle sticks, but she had to know how to overlap them, and where to put the glue, and how to make the roof stand up. That kind of experimentation is so important in learning.”

So, while the sounds emanating from the Lower School classrooms—the shouting in the gym, the quiet of the library, the giggles over Twister—seemed very different, they all reflected a common goal: Let students choose, let students play, and let students learn.

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