Social skills. Problem solving. Therapy. In Emily Mann’s Science of Play class, Northeastern students learn how critical play is for children—and themselves.
Emily Mann stops her lecture and turns to the class. “We’ve been sitting for hours; let’s play a little bit,” the Northeastern University human services professor tells the 15 honors students assembled in a sunny corner of Richards Hall on a Tuesday afternoon. She takes out a stack of multicolored circles the size of saucers with Velcro on one side, and the students affix them to the carpet, into a grid with no particular color pattern. They assemble into a circle and take turns hopping from one circle to another, trying to guess a path that another student—designated the “planner”—has decided on in their head.
“Yes. Yes. Yes. No!” the planner calls, as, one by one, the players collapse in frustrated laughter. Eventually, one guesses the sequence correctly, hops all the way across the grid, and wins the game. Next is a supercharged version of “Simon Says,” which culminates in the players trying to do one thing with their bodies (take a step to the right, for instance), while saying the opposite (“Left!”).
Go ahead and try it. It’s hard!
The games serve as a respite for the students, who are smiling and relaxed as they settle down for the remainder of the class discussion. But Mann also uses them to demonstrate, in an immediate, tangible way, how playing together nurtures qualities like social awareness and problem solving. One student, Kiara Wint, wins the color sequence game after asking for and receiving hints from her classmates.
“There were no rules against that, right? I didn’t say [so],” Mann tells the group. “You asked for help. That’s a skill: to ask, when we are in trouble, when we need support in very small ways. It’s really great practice to be able to get it.”
Mann has taught Science of Play at Northeastern every summer since 2017, both as a human services course and an interdisciplinary seminar in the university’s honors program. Also part of Northeastern’s Community Engaged Teaching and Research offerings, the course is equal parts classroom time and site visits to play spaces around Boston—the city’s Children’s Museum, public schools, area playgrounds.
Science of Play’s very existence in the Northeastern course catalog represents a shift in thinking about childhood education and development, even since Mann’s university students were elementary schoolers themselves. As No Child Left Behind-style policies swept through the nation’s school systems in the early 21st century, an emphasis on quantifiable academic benchmarks often came at the expense of arts, physical activity, and recess, according to critics. Beyer Bullard, who took Science of Play last year and is currently working as a third-grade teacher in Brookline, says some school districts are shifting back to a more holistic approach to education.
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