Edging Toward a Homework Revolution

One glorious Wednesday afternoon our girl shoots out of the school bus and barrels through the front door. She’s a lively one, a meme-maker in her own right. Talking quickly she brings us up to speed on the shocker event of the day. The wonder and surprise of the unimaginable are still fresh. Her bright eyes shine as the words tumble out.

Les Girls arriving home

“I can’t believe it. I’m so happy. Do you know what we actually have for homework tonight? Madame said our homework is to go outside and play. Nothing else, just go outside and play.”

Entries in our youngest daughter’s Grade 6 daily agenda are for the most part predictable. Homework is a recurring theme – reminders of what needs to be done in the coming days, dates for tests and quizzes, notes about special school events. On this day of days there is just one entry. It’s crisp, clear printing, nearly jumping off the page, loudly exclaiming – Aller Jouer Dehors – Go Play Outside.

If it’s in the agenda it must be true

No cajoling or threats, veiled or otherwise, were necessary for her to dive right in. Literally in this instance with old mattresses serving as a soft landing for belly flops or back flips before they’re moved curbside for garbage collection.

Playing outside with friends is the default after school activity in our neighbourhood. The homework bogey imposes structure intruding on more open-ended, oblivious-to-time pursuits. Homework is kind of like kids interruptus. It verily begs the question ‘why homework?’.

None of my four older children had ever come home with a similar assignment. In our experience play as homework is a new phenomenon, quite a singular event. Reaction to a tweet on the subject broadly indicates support for more play, less homework.

Enthusiastic reception on Twitter


Now I don’t have a stellar memory for details but I do know for sure that 50 years ago the kids in Mrs. Salmon’s Grade 6 class at Elkhorn Drive Public School in Toronto did not possess agendas. For the most part we learned in class, were set temporarily free for recess and then most importantly were released at the end of the day to go home and play. No agenda needed on the journey.

Grade 6 – 1967-68

In the best of all possible worlds, fun and play should be expansive experiences for kids. Ask yourself, are there ever enough hours in a young life to miss out on kaleidoscoping fun?

Getting students to go outside and play as a homework assignment is a step in the right direction. It’s getting them closer to setting their own after school agenda. Given their druthers most grade schoolers would choose play over any form of school work.

It’s true that not all children have equal access to play. While it is important to improve access for all, it is also critical to support grass-roots activities that can lead to meaningful change – more kids, spending more time playing, with no agenda other than their own.

The play as homework continuum could be effective in jurisdictions where homework is de rigueur or required by education authorities. Introducing play as homework once or twice a week could have a meaningful impact for the children as well as teachers. It could be integrated into the curriculum through student presentations and discussions on play activities.

The late educational reform icon, Sir Ken Robinson, addressed the often overlooked value of play during a presentation at a Halifax conference.

Play for young people is actually essential. It’s a way in which they literally flex their muscles.

So really, why wouldn’t we want our kids out there flexing? Read more on Sir Ken’s play perspectives here.

And what of homework itself. In a 2019 piece, The Cult of Homework, The Atlantic examines the multiple faces of the homework beast. Scholastic, the kids’ book folks, thinks that rationales for homework are underwhelming. They share their perspective in Down With Homework. A 2016 article in Time, Is Homework Good for Kids? Here’s What the Research Says, suggests a ‘weak correlation between homework and performance’ and further that it may not be ‘helpful’ for students in primary school.

Let’s applaud and support teachers who look for new and simple means to engage kids in what they do best, play. I wrote Madame a quick email on her foray into play as homework and included an image of the tweet. She wrote back saying the email had made her day, her week, no her month. The kids were beaming again today as play was assigned as homework for the second time.

more play, less homework

I’d love to hear from others who have similar stories. Hopefully this is more widespread and if not perhaps together we can make it so. The essential ingredient is willing teachers. We know that for the most part given the chance kids will play…

8 responses to “Edging Toward a Homework Revolution

  1. While not play exactly (although that was part of it), our research groups tested the effects of replacing traditional homework with physical activity tasks. The result: kids were 15% and 30% more active on weekdays and weekends (respectively). Would love to do a study focusing solely on outdoor (risky) play! https://ijbnpa.biomedcentral.com/…/s12966-019-0840-3


    • Thanks for your comment Scott. I wonder what kind of results would ensue from a study similar to yours but that focused on play as you suggest. I would like to think that the results would reflect an even higher percentage of engagement with so much pent up anticipation and need for play particularly post-pandemic. Cheers, Alex

      Liked by 1 person

      • Scott Duncan

        Hi Alex, I agree, I think there would be more engagement from children and possibly even from parents. We are still in the generation of parents that remember (fondly) a free-range childhood. Many feel they would like to recapture some of that for their children, but the current social and physical environment makes that difficult. Another issue is that it’s difficult (in my experience) to get research funding for ‘play’. Big health funders tend to focus on exercise, activity and health – play is seen as a optional extra, and something that applies more to preschool years. We’re trying to change that mindset but it’s a hard slog!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks Scott – it’s true that play is not the top of the pops in relation to funding priorities for research. We’ve been fortunate in the last few years in Canada thanks to support for play research from the Lawson Foundation, possibly a model for a philanthropic organization in NZ? BTW I saw a reference sometime ago, since misplaced, about a Maori designed/inspired playspace. I can’t remember anymore particulars. Is it something that rings a bell with you? I know it got some media coverage. Cheers, Alex


      • Hi Alex, here is the link to the Māra Hūpara – the traditional Māori play space you were referring to: https://nzila.co.nz/news/2019/04/mara-hupara-playground-a-return-to-traditional-mao

        We’re thinking of crafting a grant application around this approach – it would be great to see how it impacts children’s behaviour and development.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes Scott, this is the spot that I saw – different publication – nice that it’s getting picked up by a variety of outlets. Let me know if you proceed with your idea. I’d love to see how it works out. Not sure if there is anything similar with any of our indigenous nations. I'll have to inquire. Cheers, Alex


  2. Madame should have a medal. Your children will not lack somewhere good to play in, but we still need to campaign for good outdoor playspace for all age-groups in new and old housing areas to have high quality playspace.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Donne – good to hear from you. You’re so right equal access to play space needs to be addressed. I like the growing movement around play streets. While all streets may not provide high quality space it is sorely needed space right on the doorsteps of so many kids. Ultimately urban planners need to be much more focused on the needs of children to make our towns and cities more liveable and enjoyable for all ages. Cheers, Alex. P.S. – I’ll be sure to let Madame know that she should be getting a medal. She was really pleased to hear about the pickup of the tweet….


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