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Here’s What You Need to Know About Kids & Playtime

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Kids playing in box

Yesterday I came across an article about an early childhood center that has removed the swings from its playground so the kids would spend less time playing and more time “studying.” I was so furious I couldn’t form words.

Sadly, this is not an uncommon occurrence. More and more parents are searching for “academics-oriented” preschools, as opposed to those that are play-based. And more and more decision makers are ignoring both the research and child development, and implementing policies for early childhood education that eliminate even the possibility of play. A study from the University of Virginia, in fact, determined that “kindergarten is the new first grade.” Based on what I hear from early childhood professionals all around the world, preschool isn’t faring much better. Young children are now asked to perform tasks for which they are not developmentally equipped.

In the past, based on what they knew about and observed in young children, preschool and kindergarten teachers designed their programs to meet the children’s developmental needs. Play and active learning were considered key tools to accommodate those needs and to facilitate children’s education. These were some typical activities in the earliest years:

  • sorting and stacking blocks and other manipulatives (providing mathematical knowledge)
  • singing and dancing, or acting out stories (emergent literacy)
  • growing plants from seeds, exploring the outdoor environment, and investigating at sand and water tables (scientific knowledge)
  • trying on various roles and interacting with one another at housekeeping and other dramatic-play centers (social studies)

Unfortunately, recreation and leisure have never held a high value in the United States. Instead, we value hard work, achievement, and accomplishment. All are worthy of our respect and pride. But isn’t it ironic that a country whose constitution allows for the pursuit of happiness seems to feel a collective guilt about the very idea of anything fun?

How did this happen? When did productivity and busyness become our top priorities? Even given the Puritan work ethic, life in the U.S. has become so unbalanced that one side of the seesaw is pretty much grounded. But why must it be this way for children, who by their very nature are playful? Why are we so eager for our children to “act like adults?” Considering that so many of today’s adults are overwhelmed due to the effects of too little play, why aren’t we doing everything in our power to protect children from a similar fate?

In Keeping Your Kids Out Front Without Kicking Them from Behind, authors Ian Tofler and Theresa Foy DeGeronimo bluntly write:

In the process of trying to prepare our children for a rapidly evolving and fiercely competitive world, we too often professionalize and adultify our children by taking the fun out of childhood. We have turned summer camps into training camps where kids work hard to learn and improve useful skills. We have stolen lazy Saturday afternoons spent daydreaming under a tree and replaced them with adult-supervised, adult-organized activities and classes. We have taken kids out of the neighborhood playgrounds and placed them in dance and music classes, in SAT preparation classes, and on organized athletic teams. There is no time that can be wasted on idle pastimes.

In other words, play is being pushed out of children’s lives at an alarming rate. If it doesn’t serve some purpose – like winning a sports trophy or creating a potential Olympian or scholar – today’s adults have little regard for it. They are part of a culture that has come to see little value in fun.

But is play really an idle pastime?All young animals play. It is actually a biological imperative. Can you imagine trying to keep kittens and puppies from playing, when that is so clearly what nature intended?

It pains me to have to reiterate the many benefits children accrue from play – because that seems to reinforce the demands of those who insist there be “results” from everything children do. I shouldn’t have to defend play for children any more than I should have to defend their eating, sleeping, and breathing.

But it bears emphasizing that the adult personality is built on the child’s play. Among the social skills learned are the ability to share, cooperate, negotiate, compromise, make and revise rules, and to take the perspective of others. Play provides opportunities for children to meet and solve problems – the number-one ability they will most assuredly require in this rapidly changing world. It helps children express their thoughts and feelings and to deal with stress. To cope with fears they can’t yet understand or articulate.

Through play, children acquire literacy, mathematical, and creative skills. Make-believe play, in particular, has been linked to self-regulation skills, which in turn have been linked to greater academic success than IQ has. Self-regulation skills also help children with self-control and with managing stress while learning. Moreover, if children don’t learn to play as children, they aren’t likely to discover its value as adults. And just think about what a dreary existence daily life will be without a playful attitude.

Stuart Brown, MD, founder of the National Institute for Play, and psychologist and play researcher Dr. Peter Gray are among the experts who link play deprivation with hostility and depression among children, youths, and adults. They point out that as opportunities for children to play have lessened, aggression and depression have increased. Indeed, early childhood professionals throughout the world tell me they are seeing behaviors unlike any in the past – behaviors with which they don’t know how to cope.

Author Eric Jensen, an educator and researcher specializing in brain-based learning, tells us in his book Learning with the Body in Mind that “gamessupport the development of emotional intelligence in children while they facilitate face-to-face interactions, the management of feelings, the expression of verbal and non-verbal requests, the delaying of gratification, the use of self-talk, problem-solving, conflict resolution, and more.”

Jensen, Brown, and Gray, however, are not discussing adult-organized, adult-directed games. They refer instead to true play, which is open-ended and intrinsically motivated. It has nothing to do with product (home runs, goals, points, and good grades) and everything to do with process (fun).

Really, we have to ask ourselves: If children begin living like adults in childhood, what will there be left to look forward to? What joy will they find as adults if striving to “succeed” has become life’s sole purpose?

What’s a parent to do? My advice:

  • Take a few moments to reflect on your own childhood memories. Chances are, many of your most cherished involved play. Also, chances are that you would like your child to be able to look back on the same kind of memories.
  • Choose a preschool or early childhood center that respects your child’s intellectual, social-emotional, and physical needs. This describes a traditional, play-based preschool. When you visit early childhood settings and interview teachers and directors, the word play should loom large at the top of your checklist.
  • Whether your child is in public or private school, make sure that recess is part of the program at least once a day. Recess offers valuable time for true, unstructured play.
  • Take comfort in the fact that studies have determined that children enrolled in play-oriented preschools do not have a disadvantage over those who are enrolled in preschools focusing on early academics. Studies, in fact, showed that there were neither short-term nor long-term advantages of early academics versus play, and that there were no distinguishable differences by first grade. The only difference was that the children who experienced early academics were more anxious and less creative than their peers who had been in traditional, play-based preschools. In another, fourth-graders who had attended play-oriented preschools in which children often initiated their own activities had better academic performance than those who had attended academics-oriented preschools.
  • Regardless of what may be happening in your child’s school, ensure that she or he has plenty of downtime at home during which true play is possible.
  • Arrange playdates – and then step aside!

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