Free Play For Teens

At Coastside Leadership Academy we spend the first hour of our day moving our bodies outside. We have done a wide range of activities for movement, including hiking, yoga, climbing trees or ropes, Spike Ball, Pickleball, and dancing. We usually provide structure for this block of the day, but I have seen the biggest benefits for our students when we encourage free play. Traditionally, time for free play is built into the school day for younger students, and this idea gets lost as soon as resume building takes priority. We need to keep in mind that teens are still kids and they need to play as well. Free play for high school students is good for their overall health, builds community, and helps develop confidence. 

Developing active lifestyles as teens helps promote lifelong physical and mental health. At CLA we believe the two go hand in hand. We have had students come to programming having a hard morning, but after moving their bodies, their mood improves. This is because endorphins are released in the brain and they are able to process their emotions by moving the energy through and out of their bodies. Once a student is in a better place emotionally, then they are able to focus and be engaged in the learning for the day. 

Playing Mancala on the beach

Play is the ultimate community builder. It is fun to watch what types of games and activities our students come up with when they use their imaginations for collaboration. This week our students worked together to find rocks, charcoal, and a board to create a Mancala game at the beach. On other trips, they have created elaborate and imaginative ceremonies, where every student has a different role. We have also watched our students create plans and build a bridge over a creek together. Each time they play together we can hear them talking and laughing, and these are memories they are bonding over. Our students are connecting with each other and proving that they do not need technology or toys to enjoy time together. 

Playing with the group is giving our students a sense of belonging and boosting their self esteem. Time for free play is providing a safe space for our students to practice communication skills and navigate relationships with other community members. They are building confidence in using these skills and in themselves without noticing because they are having fun.

Free play is the original mindfulness and at CLA we believe giving students an opportunity to play is critical. Free play is the first experience most children have with mindfulness because when they play, they are present with themselves and their peers. Thinking back to the pandemic, this generation of teenagers had three of their formative years taken away from them while we were in quarantine. They were not able to play with their friends and learn how to make these connections. This is a huge loss and while we can’t turn back time, we can help them heal. Play is the answer to helping teens heal so they can feel healthy, connected, confident, and present in their lives.

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