Monday, February 8, 2010

The need to play

Setting up play dates with other kids is getting to be a real challenge. Scheduling around tennis, swimming, art, music, and other activities makes it difficult to get two children together for an afternoon.  I'm referring to the activities of my child's friends.  Their parents ask when we're free, and I always have the same response: we're always free.

What? No tightly scheduled series of character-building activities designed to make my child the perfect candidate for Harvard when he's older? Well... no. So what on earth do we do every day, anyway? Most of the time we play. Legos, Play-doh, drawing, story-telling, pirates, train-set... you name it, we play it.  My oldest is allowed one structured activity through the kindergarten (we are in the process of switching from music to art), but beyond that, we don't "do" those kinds of things. Not yet.

I was feeling a bit guilty about not providing the opportunity to do more structured things until I came across an article in Scientific American Mind recently: The Serious Need for Play.  Okay, it's actually from Feb/March of last year, but I just read it.  Have I mentioned that we have a major time delay in getting our magazine subscriptions to Germany? We do.  So here's my new, old news: people need to play.

According to the article, unstructured play has been shown in a variety of studies to be extremely important in social and mental development. Playing a game that has set rules doesn't count. Neither does playing a musical instrument. We are talking about free play, about giving children time to let their imaginations take over, to explore unseen (previously unimagined) universes and to create worlds with rules of their own. Even better if they can do that with other children, as this helps them hone their social and communication skills.

Free play allows children to become more creative, to be better problem-solvers, and to reduce stress. It allows us greater flexibility, which can help us to feel comfortable when we encounter new situations.  Play is not just part of being a child, but an essential part of learning how to be an adult. Animals of all kinds play when they are young... there must be a reason for it.

That's all well and good, but does the lack of free play have detrimental effects on development?  It appears that the answer is yes. One study cited in the SciAm Mind article found that who enrolled in play-oriented preschools are more socially adjusted later in life than are kids who attended play-free preschools where they were constantly instructed by teachers. By age 23, more than one third of kids who had attended instruction-oriented preschools had been arrested for a felony as compared with fewer than one tenth of the kids who had been in play-oriented preschools.  And as adults, fewer than 7 percent of the play-oriented preschool attendees had ever been suspended from work, but more than a quarter of the directly instructed kids had. [emphasis added]
Powerful findings, to my mind.  And a good reason to continue limiting the amount of time our children spend in structured activities. Parents need to put aside their concerns regarding free play and, like a writer does with his/her writing time, schedule it into the week.  Doing so allows children to grow up into adults who can not only manage, but also thrive, in an unpredictable, complex world. And finding time for free play as adults is equally important, to reduce stress and enhance creativity.

As David Elkind (child development expert at Tufts University) says,
Play has to be reframed and seen not as an opposite to work but rather as a complement.  Curiosity, imagination and creativity are like muscles; if you don't use them, you lose them.
As someone trying to recover my creativity, this sounds like a wake-up call. Let's not allow our children to lose their imaginations as they grow up. Here's to finding a little time for free play each week....

1 comment:

  1. I am pleased to say that the program we use at my preschool is primarily play centered. We use centers with a theme that has roles for the children to become engaged in, thus encouraging imagination as well as social skills. The feedback we have received from the kindergarten teachers is that our children are more self regulated than those not in our program. Their only complaint is that they don't know how to raise their hands before speaking. We encourage talking to each other rather than an individual speaker answering a question. Keep up the good work of allowing your childrem lots of free play time!