Free State of Play at Kelly Elementary12/6/2023
One day in late October, second grader Carter Lee Buyas grabbed a pair of pom poms from a pile of objects laid out on a bench in the Kelly Elementary School courtyard.
“I like the sound pom poms make,” Carter said. “I like how they shake, shake, shake. Maybe I’ll mop with them. You know, clean the ground. Or I could be a cheerleader.” He pointed to a group of three girls doing a lively cheer on the sidewalk. “Or I could plant them. The pom poms could be flags. Or plants.”
He paused and looked thoughtful. “They can be whatever I want them to be.”
Which is the essence of a new program spearheaded by Kelly ESL teacher Jackie Bartlett. Every day, during the school’s lunchtime recess, Bartlett lays out a selection of found materials on a blanket under a small tree. Then she gently guides a growing group of students in a free play session that Carter and his classmates all agree is far too short.
“This is so fun,” Carter said. “I kind of want to have this fun forever.”
Students engaged in free play are given access to a selection of recycled and found materials and then allowed to manipulate those objects in any way they want. The point is to spark children’s imaginations and offer them a creative alternative to other more structured recess activities like competitive sports and climbing on a jungle gym.
Many students obviously enjoy their daily games of pick-up basketball and time with their friends on the swing set or slide, but for others, the open-ended nature of free play is exactly what their brains and bodies crave.
“Our free play sessions really draw students who need a safe haven from gross motor play,” said Bartlett. “We get a lot of neurodivergent students and students who just want a break from the structure of high-stakes, rule-based games.”
Bartlett thinks one of the most exciting aspects of free play is the opportunity it provides for students to leave behind – if only for a short time – the expectations placed on them every day at school.
“We ask so much of students all day long,” she said. “And we tell them so many things, too. They’re always getting strict directions from adults: do this, don’t do that. Free play gives students a chance to focus on their own senses. It allows them to calm down, use their creativity, and experience joy.”
Kelly Assistant Principal Karina Kidd agrees. “We have a traditional playground with all the equipment and a lot of kids play soccer at recess and that’s wonderful, but free play brings joy to kids who want something a little different, who want to use their hands and their minds and their imaginations in a safe place with their friends.”
Bartlett was able to launch the Kelly free play program in partnership with Portland Free Play. It’s currently very small-scale. Bartlett is the only dedicated staff member and she stores the found objects in a small bin against a building wall. Someday, she hopes to expand – to have a shed full of fun objects and enough staff to allow students to free play all over the playground. In the meantime, though, she’s concentrating on the good she can do with the time and space and energy she has.
“Free play involves a lot of problem-solving,” she said, “and kids see play problem solving differently from the kind they engage in in the classroom. They come here and have fun and set goals. Then they achieve those goals over multiple days. These are valuable skills they can use the rest of their lives.”