Total up the number of conferences you’ve attended, divide by the number of panelists you’ve listened to and what do you remember?

Out of the swirl of comment, the ebb and flow of panelist debate, what sticks to the palette and nourishes the brain?

Not much beyond the rosy glow of confidence that we were among serious people talking about serious things in a serious way.

However, I recall one panel session at a creativity conference with too many panelists trying to cram every inch of their knowledge into the hall, overwhelming the time allotted.  To hasten conclusion, the moderator asked each panelist to state the single most important thing schools could change to improve creativity.

People of extensive knowledge cannot state a single thing in less than 3 or 4 paragraphs.

Except one, who said, “More recess.”

More recess, memorable in its brevity and its wisdom.  (The unmasked marvel of this insight is my friend and collaborator, Dr. Rex Jung.)

But, let’s take those two words and expand it into several paragraphs.

Why would recess—which has been diminished and even eliminated in schools—be so important?

Recess is not organized by adults.  There are adult rules, but, inside the perimeters of safety, it’s a free for all.  Children choose how to play—in groups or alone—and what to play—anything from games to pretend play to nothing at all.

On the playground, children initiate activities—acts of imagination.  They learn to get along with their peers.  They make their own rules.  They practice their independence.

Children are always constructing their own understanding of the world.  On the playground, children test their hypotheses through imagination and play, engagement with other children, physical activity and their own thinking.  They observe, imagine, reflect, and ask questions while formulating answers and revising their hypotheses.

Which makes it sound like children are scientists.  They are, unwittingly.  But, children don’t consciously play to learn.  They play because it’s fun.  Play is universal: all children engage in play.  Is the love of play embedded in our DNA?  Is play crucial to evolution?  Is fun crucial?

Fun provides laughter, pleasure, enjoyment and a sense of playfulness—being full of play. It is circular, there is no goal or product.  Play is fun and, when it stops being fun, play ends.

The games that adults play have one goal: to win.  We teach our children to play to win, never quit.  Look at Little League baseball.  Children as young as 7 and 8 play on teams coached by adults who keep score.

However, give children a ball, bat, gloves and a handful of players and see what happens.  They figure out their own game like work up or as we called it growing up: Work-ee-up.  We put six or seven players—or sometimes 11 or 13—on the field, three or four at bat.  You batted until you were put out.  Then, you grabbed your glove and went to right field.  But, on the next out, you moved to center field, then to left, then third and so on until you “work-eed” your way up to “bat-ee.”

In work-ee-up, there are no winners, no teams and you play every position in your turn.  The game never ends until the players decide to go home.  Work-ee-up is played only for the fun of throwing, catching and hitting a ball.  There are rules, but they change to keep the game going.  A player has to go home early?  No problem, make right field poison: hit to right field and you’re out.  A little kid comes to bat and swings wildly missing the ball, someone will say, “Ah, it’s little Hunter, give him 5 strikes.”

Little League can be fun, too.  Children love the thrill of winning as much as adults do.  But, half the kids lose, which, as the coach will say, is one of life’s lessons.  And, learning lessons is good, right?

I was on the playground in 4th grade and a big 5th grader burst out of the school doors, poked his finger in my chest and demanded that I “Spell Mississippi!”  It was Dennis Rasmussen and in my memory he was huge.  I was trapped.  But, right away, Dennis in cadence sang out “M-I-S-S…I-S-S…I-P-P-I.”  And then he ran off to showcase his new knowledge.

I learned how to spell Mississippi that day and not to stand by the door when the 5th grade was released for recess.  Dennis had turned his knowledge into a game (of intimidation?).  And he practiced it.  At recess.

So, recess is dismissed as child’s play.  Not important as we educate our children for the great game of life.  But, the common understanding of “child’s play”—so simple a child could do it—is wrong.  Play ranges from the simple to the complex and it is ever changing.  Through play, children grow their imaginations, learn to collaborate (or face a finger poke for not spelling Mississippi), practice their motor skills, gain independence, and rehearse and test what they have learned.

They practice living what they are learning.  And, practice is essential for the improvement of any skill.  Especially practice that is fun.

So, more recess, more play, more learning.