How Downtime and Free Play Help Students Learn

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Downtime is an all-too-often overlooked ingredient in student success. 

“Many of our most important kinds of construction of meaning about our world actually happens when we're not in task-oriented, goal-directed states,” says Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, professor of education as well as psychology and neuroscience at the University of Southern California. “You need to feel safe, and you need to let go of your outer vigilance and not be disrupted by things digging at you or by having to finish something in a timely way.” 

Linked to the concept of downtime is the importance of play, which is also often overlooked in education, says Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, the Stanley and Debra Lefkowitz Faculty Fellow in the Department of Psychology at Temple University and a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. Standardized test scores improve when play is prioritized in schools, she says, which is particularly important to help rebound from the pandemic. “Learning loss shouldn't mean accelerating by getting more and more and more more. It’s time to change the mindset on how we teach,” she says. 

The Importance of Downtime  

Immordino-Yang was the lead author of the influential 2012 study “Rest is Not Idleness.” Immordino-Yang and her colleagues at USC and MIT used brain scans to look at study participants in a restful state called “default mode.” They found that important regions of the brain are active during this state and mostly suppressed when attention is focused on the outside world. 

This internal reflection is vital for student growth both emotionally and intellectually, says Immordino-Yang, who has conducted extensive research on these topics.

Specifically, Immordino-Yang says downtime can help students with:

  • Morality and ethics/meaning-making
  • Identity building/self-awareness 
  • Complex social emotions
  • Formation of sense of purpose in life
  • Mental health and awareness and mindfulness 

However, Immordino-Young is not saying downtime should replace all instruction. Instead, she says good education allows students to toggle back and forth between being introduced to new concepts and ideas and having the time to process the larger implications of those ideas. 

For instance, in a 10th-grade physics class, Immordino-Yang says students might be asked to roll a ball down an incline and calculate its speed and what role the size of the ball plays in that equation. Stepping away from the exercise will help them process its larger implications. “There's this bigger thing at play, which is this notion of gravity, which you can't directly observe, but which you're getting indicators of indirectly from these measurements,” she says. 

The Importance of Play  

Children can learn important skills through guided and free play, including emotional regulation, language development, and reading, according to Hirsh-Pasek’s research and research conducted by others. Play is hardwired in humans and many other animals. 

“Monkeys play and dogs play, cats play, and guess what, even octopuses play,” Hirsh-Pasek says. “It isn't frivolous. It's actually one of the most important things that we can do, to allow ourselves to constantly grow.” 

While much of the research into play focuses on its benefits for young learners, Hirsh-Pasek says it is important for students of any age, as well as adults, to play because this is one of the things that makes us more effective than rapidly advancing and improving machines. 

“They can do a whole lot of tasks we can do, but we get to outsmart the robots because we think of new stuff because we explore and play and sometimes it doesn't follow an outcome,” she says. 

Using Downtime and Play in Your Classroom  

Harnessing the benefits of downtime and play often involves implementing educational strategies that prioritize pedagogical strategies such as student-centered learning, active learning, and project-based learning

“One of the problems we have is that we think of play as just one thing, we think of it as free play. I happen to love free play but free play is only one kind of play,” says Hirsh-Pasek. “There's also playful learning, or guided play, where the teacher becomes the guide on the side rather than the sage on the stage. And when you do that, and you allow children and adults to take some initiative in their own learning, magic happens. The teachers are happier teaching, the kids are happier learning.”

To facilitate the benefits of downtime and student choice, Immordino-Young recommends educators take time to think about each student in their class and recognize what that student does or knows better than them. “Then help facilitate the development of those skills,” she says. “If you don't know what those are, if you see kids without strengths in your classroom, you need to try harder.” 

It can also be important to realize when you don’t need to be in charge. Immordino-Young lives near youth sports fields and can overhear children playing and how coaches are directing them. 

“When you listen and you can't see what's going on, it really sounds like adults playing soccer with children as pawns,” she says. “What if the adults just shut up and let the kids play soccer? Would the standard of play, right here, right now go down? For sure. But what capacities would the kids be developing that they're not developing when adults are doing it for them?”  

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is Tech & Learning's senior staff writer. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.