If you travel through Sylacauga frequently, sooner or later you have the opportunity to wait for a train to cross through town. I consider it a timeout because I try to use it as a time to read, reflect, sing, or catch up on phone calls. The reality is there is nothing that can be done about it other than to wait, so I might as well be productive and wait patiently. After all, what’s my hurry?

It seems like we are in a hurry in everything we do. We express check out at the grocery store, pay at the gas pump, and order all kinds of things on the internet. Our society has basically bought in to paying extra for convenience. While those are all ways to make life easier, they leave out the element of human interaction, a life skill that is critical to building relationships and working well with people.

In the school world, we focus from the earliest grades on preparing students for what lies ahead of them after high school. Unfortunately, we have consumed ourselves with testing students to supposedly find out if they are ready for their future. If all we create are good test takers, we will miss out on equipping children with essential life skills.

Recently, the Phi Delta Kappa survey on perception of schools revealed that 82% of respondents believe it is “highly important for schools to help students develop interpersonal skills, such as being cooperative, respectful of others, and persistent at solving problems”. These are social and emotional skills I think we all agree are important to success in life. Fortunately, children can learn them best at a very early age simply by playing together.

It has been a remarkable experience for my wife and me to see our two boys learn by playing. Our oldest is playing recreational soccer this year and I am seeing him learn important relationship skills like supporting his teammates, respecting his coaches, and following directions. He is also learning how to share, to cooperate, and to be kind to others. I will confess that these lessons do not always come easy, but they are critical to his ability to be successful in life.

I believe that early formal and informal education of children must include play. If children cannot cooperate, get along with others, or problem solve, academic achievement is going to be the least of their worries. Mastery of these skills will lessen obstacles to learning how to read, write, and do math.

Sylacauga City Schools is fortunate to offer Pre-K classes where play is the bedrock of learning. Pre-K teachers are masters at creating developmentally appropriate learning experiences based on the interest of students. They use play to teach social and emotional skills. Working together, managing feelings, displaying appropriate behavior, communicating, and being a good friend are all important parts of the curriculum. These skills create an environment where children can learn most effectively. They also foster life-long character traits that make for better homes, workplaces, and communities.

I believe in our mission to prepare all students for college, career, and community success. I believe in hard work and the value of academic excellence. However, “All work and no play make (insert name) a dull (insert gender)”. Each day I watch my boys play in the backyard, I am reminded to make sure first things come first. I really am in no hurry to see them grow up without being able to work well with others. So, I am determined to slow down and make play a priority for learning in their life and mine too.

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Dr. Todd Freeman is Superintendent of Sylacauga City Schools. Almost 2,400 students are enrolled in Sylacauga’s school system — Sylacauga High School, Indian Valley Elementary School, Nichols-Lawson Middle School, and Pinecrest Elementary School. Follow Dr. Freeman on Twitter at mtfreeman or visit www.sylacauga.k12.al.us.

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