Photo courtesy of Amy Lauren Smith

Why You Should Bring Your Teenage Students Outside to Play

Amy Lauren Smith

Editors note: In this months debate, Do Teens Need Recess?, we tackle the importance of physical activity during the school day. This activity from Choices teacher-adviser Amy Lauren Smith—a sixth to eighth grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, and the brilliant mind behind our Teachers Guide each month—will help you get your students moving.


Earlier this year, I had my seventh graders researching the benefits of play. They were online, digging around for all of the ways that playing can benefit their physical, social, and emotional health. I find this method of information gathering an effective way of delivering content, as the students process it in an immediate and personal way. Sure enough, it was only a few minutes before they began calling out some of the things that they found.


“Playing outside can help your mental health because being in nature reduces stress.”


“It can also make you a better student since it improves focus and reasoning.”


“Oh! It's super important for your social health because it’s when you develop relationships.”


“Physically, there are like, so many. Do I have to write them all?”


And then, a voice from the back of the room…


“Is anybody else in here seeing the irony? We’re sitting inside, researching the benefits of play.”


He was right, of course, so there was only one thing to do. We’d need to go outside and do some hands-on research as well. I knew the risks of taking a group of seventh graders outside without some direction—a group of kids would play basketball, a few would hang out on the swings, one or two would ask me what they were supposed to do—so I decided to set some parameters.


Since we were looking at the benefits of free play, I didn’t want to overprescribe, so I came up with some simple guidelines. They needed to find a game that would involve everyone and they couldn't pick an organized sport. I guided them to start thinking about some of their favorite games growing up, and soon they had generated a big list of ideas—Infection Tag, Cops and Robbers, Red Light/Green Light, Capture the Flag. I told them I was going to be hands-off, but if I felt like they weren’t all into it, we’d have to come back inside.


As soon as we got outside, a few students naturally became the leaders and they all decided who was it. I think they were playing Cops and Robbers, but the game quickly developed rules of its own. Kids who are normally too self-conscious to run in PE were booking it like their lives depended on it, laughing hysterically. One of my most introverted students even became the focus of the class when she was so fast that she was the last to get caught.


It was really special to see these middle school students dropping their armor and taking the time to be kids. Their laughter was absolutely contagious, and other teachers walking across campus stopped just to take it all in. My class kept playing right up until the time I had to drag them back in.


When we got back into the room and I asked them who felt better than they had 20 minutes before, every single hand shot up.


“See,” said my observant student from before, “hands-on research is the best.”


To try this activity with your class, check out this month’s debate, Do Teens Need Recess?



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