Reading, Four Square and Autonomy


By Jill Vialet, Playworks CEO and Founder and author of new kids’ novel Recess RulesRecess Rules is the story of Cassie Murphy and her four best friends, who are on a mission to save recess for everyone at Magruder Elementary School.

Reading can open up a kid’s world to wonderful things. But without the motivation to read, students may never develop the literacy needed to reach their potential. In Theresa A. Roberts’ book No Limits to Literacy she writes, “When children’s need for autonomy is nourished, they feel that their literacy behavior is initiated from within or at least that they have an inner endorsement of significance and value of the literacy activity. They have personally bought in to the importance of literacy.”

At Playworks, we believe in the power of play to bring out the best in every kid. And just as Roberts describes the importance of autonomy in reading, we find that choice makes all the difference in the world when it comes to recess. But what is often overlooked is the link between these two experiences: the idea that engaging students on the playground can be a springboard for engaging them in the classroom.

Take Samuel for example. He rarely completed his homework and was struggling in the classroom. But when on the playground, Samuel thrived! He ran quickly to the soccer field every day and smiled the entire time. Not only that, Samuel was a natural leader — making sure the others followed the rules of play. Coach Amy was immediately struck by this and spoke with his teacher about having Samuel become a Junior Coach. After much discussion, Samuel was able to join the student leadership program and don a purple shirt every Friday after he completed his week’s homework. When Ms. Williams stepped onto the playground one Friday, she was amazed by what she saw. Samuel was a whole different child.

Recess & Literacy…

So what is it that recess provides students and how can it benefit literacy programs?

At recess, students are given autonomy. On the playground, Samuel was given the choice of what to play. And he was given the voice and skills to express his opinions, to identify and resolve conflicts, to make mistakes and try again, learning the ultimate lesson that success most often comes after a series of failed attempts. Samuel was given the opportunity to not only play, but to lead others. At recess, every child can discover their own superpowers. Children develop a sense a confidence through play. At recess, every child belongs. And it is in these experiences that students build a foundation for achieving literacy.

Research shows that when students are given choice and some control of their learning, they feel a sense of ownership that develops more motivated learners. So why not ask our students what they want to read and what they have learned from their learning? If we can bridge a child’s autonomy and confidence on the playground with their experience in the classroom, we may be able to encourage a few more happy readers. If we can engage young learners with books in the same way they engage with the blacktop or a kickball or a jump rope–as a tool to inspire and interact with–then the ideas and dreams formed from reading will be entirely their own.

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