Benefits of play

Finally research has vindicated the mothers of half a century ago who routinely opened the back screen door and told their kids to go play, and not to bother coming back until the street lights came on or they heard the dinner bell, whichever came first.

Turns out these mothers were not being abusive and neglectful. The moms of the previous century didn’t know it, of course, but they were ensuring that their children developed a critical cognitive skill called “executive function.”

What kids did when their hours were not filled with TV, video games, and electronic toys (or yoga classes, soccer games, and tiny tot gymnastics) was regulate their own activities, mostly in improvised imaginative play.  They played “cops and robbers,” house,” or “school,” their own reality-based dramas. They also became the characters in fantasies involving queens and dragons, cowboys and horses, flying caped heroes and tall buildings, pirates and sinking ships. And as they did this, researchers are telling us now, they were developing “executive function,” the ability to self-regulate, the measurement of which turns out to be a better indicator of success in school than the results of an IQ test.

Kids with good self-regulation skills are better able to control their emotions, resist impulsive behavior, and become self-disciplined and self-controlled.

Times have changed

Those were different times, of course, and there’s no going back to them.  Kicking one’s kids out of the house is no longer considered good form.  And kids shooed outside into a modern day subdivision would probably quickly come home bored anyway, because there wouldn’t be any other kids out there for them to play with.  No one rings a dinner bell out the kitchen door to call the children home any more.  The kids are already home, bickering over which channel to watch, perhaps, or gobbling down a quick supper so they won’t be late for t-ball practice.

There are a couple of reasons for this shift.  First of all, we now seem to be afraid to permit our children to play unsupervised.  We are convinced that there are child molesters outside wanting to grab them, and accidents of all sorts waiting to happen to them, outdoors or in.  In vain do statisticians tell us that our children’s chances of being molested are no greater than they ever were, and that accidents are even more rare than previously. And secondly, we now feel that we have to give our child every possible opportunity to add to his repertoire of skills.  How can he become a musical prodigy if he doesn’t attend toddler Suzuki classes; how can he become a soccer star if he doesn’t join the team as soon as he can walk; how can he get into Harvard if his parents don’t very nearly bankrupt themselves sending him to the very best preschool?  If we don’t make sure he has these opportunities we will be putting him at a disadvantage compared to all the other children who are on all the right teams, in all the best classes.

So, how do we reconcile today’s anxious parents and the highly structured environment with our children’s need for unstructured, self-regulated play?

What to do

Let’s start with the givens: we’re not going to cancel all his classes and sports activities, and we’re not going to let him play totally unsupervised.  But we can certainly limit the number of teams and classes we sign him up for. Very young children don’t need anything extra outside of the occasional playdate, if that.  Toddlers might enjoy an hour or so per week at a class designed for kids their age where they could run and move freely, either to music or on gymnastics mats and 6-inch high balance beams, but no more.  Older preschoolers would probably benefit from attending, 3-5 mornings per week, a preschool where the bulk of the time is given over to free play.  A kindergartener might join a soccer team where cooperation and not competition is stressed, but only if he expressed interest.  The primary requirement for unsupervised play is uninterrupted stretches of time, and we could certainly cut back on all those classes and practices in order to give our children a little more of it.

No adults allowed

And while we’re not going to let our children play entirely unsupervised, we don’t need to be hovering over them, intruding into their play, either.  Even the youngest children are quite capable of entertaining, even educating, themselves.

We can stay nearby, assuring ourselves that we are keeping them safe, but at the same time go about our own business and not intervene, not offer solutions to problems until it becomes quite clear that such is needed.

We can limit TV to an hour a day, tops, and start buying our children uncomplicated toys and fewer of them.

We can encourage complex imaginative play by offering simple props and play ideas, but then withdraw so the children can plan their own scenarios and act them out.  Even the smallest toddler, given the opportunity, will start feeding the baby, or driving his car down the highway.  Older children will become family members, characters from stories, powerful heroes, animals in the jungle, royalty, all the while devising plotlines and scene changes worthy of the most skilled dramatist.

Imagine your children along with those of your more enlightened friends enjoying whole afternoons of such brain-enriching, creative play.  Then imagine your snoopy neighbor observing them and starting to brag about how her 3-year-old, who takes karate, chess and ballroom dancing, excels in all three. You needn’t be intimidated.  You can tell her that your 3-year-old, who appears to be feeding dryer lint to her teddy bear, is actually improving her “executive function.”  Your neighbor will surely be impressed. And you will be confident that your child is spending precious time at the activity that children need most and love best: playing independently and imaginatively.

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