Playing Up

playing up

Are we compromising our children’s potential by inflicting on them a plethora of adult-led activities? Here’s why our kids need more time to play and do their own thing while they’re at it.

The best thing about being a kid is all the play. Some of my favourite memories of childhood are of making up games with my friends at lunchtime.

For today’s kids, though, play is fast becoming an endangered species. The time allowed for it has been shrinking worldwide as children’s weekly schedules become as busy as their parents’ and technology fills in the rest. Often – between tennis, violin, after-school tutoring, cellphones and the computer – there just isn’t much space left for play.

Is play really needed, though, or are our kids better off busy?

play: a four-letter word

To adults, the word play sometimes seems offensive – a big waste of time. At almost 4 years of age, my daughter is entering maximum imagination zone. I, on the other hand, went hunting for my 30-something imagination the other day only to find it dusty and rotting under the couch.

Understandably, I’m finding her very elaborate games and role-playing hard to keep up with and, frankly, kind of boring. As she brings me endless toys to treat for the chickenpox, I catch myself counting down to the next gymnastics lesson or music class where we can happily follow the structured activities set by the teachers.

Worldwide, parents have been increasingly filling their kids’ schedules with structured lessons and adult-organised learning. We want the best for our kids, and lessons with experts seem the logical way to give them a head start.

As a parent, I certainly feel the pressure to develop my child’s potential at every available minute. Surely our kids will thank us for it when they are successful Olympians or multi-millionaire geniuses, won’t they?

where, oh where, has my playtime gone?

Many experts in child development are worried about disappearing playtimes. Authors of the book Einstein Never Used Flash Cards say that time for a child to play has reduced dramatically. In America, almost half the schools have completely removed play breaks so they can fit in more lesson time.

We are trying to give them the best, but are we really maximising our children’s potential with all these adult-led activities?

Experts are saying that we aren’t. In fact, we may be doing the opposite. Too much structure and over-scheduling, they say, is creating stressed-out little bunnies who are not reaching their full potential. More cases of childhood depression and anxiety are popping up, as are stress-
related illnesses.

So, as boring as we may find it to sit and play fairyland or superheroes for hours, it might be just what our children need.

baby mermaids don’t like pirates

My daughter was a baby mermaid for an entire year. When pirates chased her she put them in jail, she hid mermaid treasure and protected it with mermaid friends. She named her dad Boots the Monkey (from Dora) and together they played for hours.

Our kids have incredible imaginations for a reason: to play. Pretending to be a mermaid hiding treasure doesn’t seem important, but for years researchers have been telling us it is. Play helps children learn, understand the world and other people. Play is how they reach their full potential.

Parents of young children often worry about them not spending enough time learning to read, write or count. But play doesn’t take away from learning, it adds to it.

Researchers have found that play helps improve a large number of areas. In fact, a recent study said that children who had quality play in the early years were better prepared for learning at school.

some of the areas play helps with:

  • Attention span
  • Vocabulary
  • Problem solving
  • Impulse control
  • Curiosity
  • Co-operation
  • Empathy
  • Speech development
  • Understanding language
  • Learning to understand written language
  • Understanding the reasons we read and write
  • Understanding numbers and math concepts

superheroes climbing trees

Outdoor play is something many of our kids are missing out on. Physical outdoor play is not only great for health, fitness and body awareness, it’s also great for kids’ brains.

Swinging so high that the chains bend, nervously climbing the highest part of the fort, and jumping from the biggest platform is all big-time important play for kids. It certainly freaks me out a bit to watch but, unless it really is dangerous, I bite my tongue and stand back.

Researchers say that outdoor play that’s a bit scary is particularly great for learning. Being brave enough to try something challenging, push yourself and risk failure are qualities of intelligence and creativity.

When children are adventurous, they are learning to be good thinkers and problem-solvers. Outdoor play lets kids discover that they are brave, strong, confident and successful.

for the fun of it

Play has well and truly been shown to be good for our kids, but even if it was just time-wasting, I think I would be happy that my daughter was simply having fun. Play for the fun of it, with no learning goals, no educational purpose, no reason other than enjoyment is what play is all about for kids. When you watch a child freely playing, you’re actually watching a moment of extreme happiness.

Maybe if we free up our own schedules, as well as our kids’, we might all benefit from a bit of fun for the sake of it.

a parent’s role in play

  • Provide materials that encourage imagination: paints, boxes, blocks, toys that can be used in more than one way.
  • Be playful and resist the urge to teach during free-play time.
  • Balance letting them play alone and playing alongside them.
  • Add ideas if play is stuck or repetitive.
  • Use field trips, DVDs, books and objects to expand play ideas (focus on pointing out people’s roles rather than objects – e.g. what a postie does).
  • Let them experiment.
  • Show new ways to use objects – e.g. a pen could be a magic wand or a conductor’s baton.
  • Allow time for play. Turn off the TV, computer and cellphone, free up an afternoon and start a game, head outdoors or put out a couple of toys and just see what happens.

Kelly Eden-Calcott is a writer and trained teacher, with degrees in Education and Early Intervention.

more entertainment and games from tots to teens:

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