At the beginning of the year, we did a unit on bubbles. An early lesson involved discovering what bubbles can and cannot do. The older students were supposed to look at the bubble cards and predict, but we decided that the younger students should just dive in, play with the bubbles, and look at the cards afterward to sum up their hands-on discovery. What I saw, however, was that while the older students approached the lesson like a task to be completed, younger students experimented and ended up trying, on their own, almost all of the things on the bubble cards...and they had fun!
We tend to think of play as chaos, disorganized and undisciplined. We are human, and therefore we feel the need to organize and classify everything, including play. "Let's have a game that will teach ______ skill, and we will play it this way with these rules." Even Legos, which used to be readily available in big boxes of jumbled pieces now come in kits with diagrams. When we start an engineering unit, I warn staff that if they just give kids freedom of imagination, most will hesitate, many will ask, "So, what do I do? How do I start? What do you want me to build?" and some kids will outright panic.
Even talking about play, we need to be organized and present a clear benefit. If we want to discuss play, we tend to justify it with studies on how play helps kids learn, or how it helps build social skills, increase creativity, or reduce stress by increasing oxytocin levels in the brain. We need to cite a study before or just after we mention the word, or adults panic, just like the kids given imaginative freedom. "We can't just play, that would be...oh, it will help them study? Oh, well, that's okay, then...just as long as it is organized, and you can justify the wasted time with a quantifiable benefit."
While the benefits of play have been documented, we need to stop thinking about play as "wasted time," unless we have an FMRI and a fistful of higher state testing scores in hand to "justify" it. Sometimes we all need to play just because. Just because it is a lovely day outside. Just because we feel like it. Just because there is an open field and it begs for a game we invent. Just because there is a box of blocks, and a castle inside our heads waiting to emerge. Just because.
I think this sums up afterschool programs nicely. We look out for kids. Our kids are active at least 30 minutes a day & we make sure they get a healthy snack. We run a STEAM program, but we choose topics that interest kids and generate an interest in a variety of STEAM fields. We provide a safe place. We allow room for hands-on exploration and independent inquiry. We encourage creativity and critical thinking. We work outside the box. We provide time to play. We help with homework. We listen. We care. We are afterschool programs, and we look out for kids. It is what we do. It is why we are here. And, honestly, I think we are very, very good at it.