New after-school program offered in Southold, Greenport

Forty-five minutes of playtime can spark positive change in a child.

That’s a belief David Gamberg, superintendent of the Southold and Greenport school districts, brought to administrators at the start of this 2018-19 academic year. 

One month ago, Mr. Gamberg said, elementary schools in both districts introduced an after-school program called the “Let Grow Play Club,” part of a national Let Grow Play initiative dedicated to promoting children’s playtime. The program encourages students to play freely without faculty interference.

The program began with 40 students in each school and now includes between 65 and 75 per district. The children, from grades K through 6, gather at their playgrounds every Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Gamberg said. Adults are present, but do not direct activities, and parents are required to sign a release before their children can participate. Mr. Gamberg believes the growing number of signed releases demonstrates their desire to get their children outside for unstructured play.

“I think it is a real indication of families wanting their children to experience something so simple, healthy and important in terms of childhood,” he said.

Given their busy schedules, said Southold elementary principal Ellen O’Neill, most children don’t have time to go home and play outside.

According to a 2016 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, children spend up to 19 hours a week on smart phone and other screens, and more children than ever before are using newer digital technology, including interactive and mobile media, daily.

Ms. O’Neill cited social media, video games and organized extracurricular activities as a source of distraction from free play.

“If we can help to introduce more free play into their after-school lives, then I feel it’s important to make [the program] happen,” she wrote in an email Monday. A joint press release from the districts said dozens of elementary schools around the U.S. have formed Let Grow Play Clubs.

Shortly after Mr. Gamberg introduced the program to her and Greenport Elementary School principal Joseph Tsaveras, Ms. O’Neill said she discovered that two other Long Island schools have established their own play clubs, including Patchogue-Medford.
Mr. Tsaveras said children in the U.S. are getting far less outdoor playtime than in years past. For that reason, he said, it’s important for educators to preserve outside free play for children.
“Being outdoors in the natural world is a vital positive influence in every child’s development,” he wrote in an email.
Students in Greenport enjoying time outdoors during play club. (Courtesy photo)

Ms. O’Neill said 20 minutes of exercise can increase brain function in children. When kids have the opportunity to create their own games among peers — a critical aspect of the club — it teaches social and communication skills and increases imagination. It has also been shown to reduce anxiety and stress levels, she added.

“With all of this research showing the positive effects, I feel strongly that we should continue to increase the amount of free play and exercise our children experience,” she said. “That goes for parents, as well as schools. If we all work together, our children benefit.”

Caption: Southold Elementary School students Ilana Shedrick (left) and Erica Stettinger climb on the jungle gym Tuesday at Let Grow Play Club. The club, new to Greenport and Southold elementary schools, meets every Tuesday afternoon on the playgrounds if weather permits.

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