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Play and mentoring are a seriously good combination

By Joshua Kukowski

At the school my daughter will attend in a few years, recess is only 20 minutes long. I have fond school memories of conquering multiple snow hills during recess, and of wishing that I had more time for it. According to the National PTA, my school boy desire was a healthy one -- 20 minutes is not enough.

Today I am an educator working with multiple youth programs. Recently, while on a mentoring site visit with a partner organization, I witnessed two contrasting events:

It was a cold evening, and a mentor was teaching a couple of youth how to skip rope double-dutch style. The kids were laughing, learning, and clearly having fun. In another room, a mentor sat with a mentee asking some questions about her life. The mentee was clearly disengaged. The difference between the two scenes was stark to me.

Out-of-school time can supplement what happens in school but it doesn’t have to mirror it. We have the ability to create opportunities for youth that include healthy relationships. In my own program planning and design, I often forget to include “play-time” and sometimes reflect why some sessions aren’t very successful.

Research supports the connection between play and mentoring. It shows that the most effective matches between mentors and mentees occur when the mentor plays with the mentee – even the adolescents. Basically, playing with them showed a personal investment beyond the committed time that permitted a positive mentoring relationship to exist. Mentoring trainings themselves should encourage relaxed play time.

Too often, we fear that scheduling downtime at an event can lead to trouble, but actually, permitting unrestricted play is essential for our kids to be genuinely invested in our programming. Play is healthy for adults, too. By taking this a step further and embedding play for our youth, we create that interaction that will allow for high quality mentoring to take place … but you have to play first. So, dust off your checker skills, make an attempt to jump some rope, and play with those kids!

Do you build play time into your programming? Do you struggle with always having to justify it? How do you resolve that?

-- Joshua Kukowski, Extension educator

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  1. Prior to being a 4-H program coordinator, I was an elementary school teacher. In that setting, the more structured the activities the better and more chance for success for the students. I naively thought when I began planning 4-H clubs, that structure would also be equally important in ensuring a quality program. Wow, my experience quickly proved me wrong. Although I believe youth still need structure, I now know that unstructured "play" time is just as important. In a mentor program, it gives an opportunity for the youth and mentors to form a genuine connection and it doesn't seem so forced because they are having fun together. What child wants to sit in a desk or at a table all day with the exception of a short recess period and leave school to go to sit for another period of time? They need to let loose and building recreation and game time into activities not only gives them time to be silly, have fun, and run around, but it teaches them appropriate play. In addition, we learn so much more about a child's true character when they are participating in unstructured activities. A mentor can gain so much insight into a child's social competence by observing how they interact with others during this time.

    1. I love how you say "true character" in there. Our kids are more than grades, performance, and behavior. I know you work with mentors - do you encourage 'free play'?

  2. What a valuable post! Play is such a vital part of social interaction for young people. As an infant, it is through play that we learn about the world. As we get older, pretending is a valuable tool in exploring positive ways to express emotions. The benefits of movement for young people to their physical health are well established and increasingly we are beginning to understand the academic and behavioral benefits of staying active. The benefits of moving combined with the social benefits of play make integrating open recreation into out of school time programs an important element to promote. I agree with you Josh, this often gets lost in the desire to squeeze in all the important “education.” But we eliminate play at great cost to our programs. Thanks for reminding us of the importance of this piece of our work!

    1. Do you have any tricks for adding 'play' to your programs platform? I know you enjoy camping - how do you add free play to your program?

  3. Your post caused me to wonder if the word "mentor" for a youth adult mentorship isn't a good fit. When I think of mentoring, I tend to gravitate towards a professional relationship, where it is sitting down and talking one to one, like your second example. I certainly don't think of play when I first think of mentorship. Now, if I think of youth mentorship, the youth development professional side of me envisions a more active atmosphere, but I don't think many people come with that youth development knowledge. The idea of big sister / big brother seems to be a better fit, but that might be a turn off for older adults.

  4. You are right...I draw back to my memory from the movie "Good Will Hunting" where Matt Damon and Robin Williams' characters were carefully, and professionally matched up, it was a mentor relationship that was one-to-one, didn't include play - but was very productive...

    Asking that same adult to connect with a youth may prove to be counter-productive...good pick up Margo.

  5. The detangling of the word mentor is something I never considered. That is an interesting conversation. Word choice aside, this post was enlightening to me and I'm anxious to dig into the research some more. I know after planning year one of a campus immersion (overnight) experience, evaluation, observations and verbal feedback from youth indicated that young people wanted and NEEDED more downtime. In planning, I was focused on providing those hands-on learning opportunities, which was good, but excessive. What I've learned from your post is that downtown is an opportunity for young people to feel that the supportive adults in their lives are investing in them--not just in a "professional" sense, but as a whole person. Great post.


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