If Play Is What Makes Us Human, Why Don't We Let Kids Do It?

child development, children and play
The way play used to be: Mom lurked, but only to take a picture.

Here’s something to mull over: kids, in general, are engaged in so little self-directed, theme-less, purely from their own minds play these days that, in order to maybe try this kind of free play out, they need to be shown how to do it.

Kids need to relearn how to play, according to some child development experts.

A lot of us parents probably suspect this at some level.We know that we had a lot more freedom to roam during our childhoods compared to our kids’ childhoods. But we only sort of wish our own kids could experience that. We’re reluctant send them out the front door and tell them to come home by dinnertime because were worried for their safety, we fear we’d get arrested, and, anyway, the Kindergarten homework packet still needs to get done.

A convergence of trends in education, society restrictions and electronic games (designed by grown-ups) has left kids totally inept at … being kids.

The Christian Science Monitor‘s “Toddlers to Tweens: Relearning How to Play” explains what it is that kids aren’t getting in their free time (basically, total freedom) and why a childhood without long stretches of free play (i.e. no adults) undermines academics. If this article doesn’t make you hide the Wii and cancel a few after-school activities, then you need to go back and re-read it one more time. (Also a worthy read is the sidebar, “Evolution of play: unsupervised bat and ball to today’s screens”).

One researcher found play — a lack of it, actually — was a common denominator in the mass murderers he had been studying.

From the Monitor:

[Stuart] Brown [the founder of the California-based National Institute for Play,] became interested in play as a young clinical psychiatrist when he was researching, somewhat incongruously, mass murderers. Although he concluded that many factors contributed to the psychosis of his subjects, Brown noticed that a common denominator was that none had participated in standard play behavior as children, such as interacting positively with parents or engaging in games with other children. As he continued his career, he took “play histories” of patients, eventually recording 6,000. He saw a direct correlation between play behavior and happiness, from childhood into adulthood.

Later work in animal behavior underscored, for Brown, the necessity of play, the absence of which he tells the monitor is not just a problem but a pathology.

Brown later worked with ethologists scientists who study animal behavior to observe how other species, from honeybees to Labrador retrievers, play. This behavior in a variety of species is sophisticated from “self-handicapping,” so a big dog plays fairly with a small dog, to cross-species play, such as a polar bear romping with a sled dog. He also studied research on play depravation, noting how rat brains change negatively when they are deprived of some sorts of play.

Brown became convinced that human play for adults as well as children is not only joyful but neces­sary, a behavior that has survived despite connections in some studies to injury and danger (for example, animals continue to play even though they’re likely to be hunted while doing so) and is connected to the most ancient part of human biology.

Those parenting young kids now came into a parenting world where our children’s future success was solely dependent on their education, the best of which offers an ever more rigorous curriculum, one that preferably treats second-graders like college sophomores, but I digress.

What some who study play and education are finding, however, is that one key skill that children can’t be taught, can’t figure out behind a computer screen or on TV or even in organized sports — they  must develop it on their own — is the golden ticket. It’s called “executive function.”

From the Monitor:

The latter point has been a hot topic recently. Self-regulation the buzzword here is “executive function,” referring to abilities such as planning, multitasking, and reasoning may be more indicative of future academic success than IQ, standardized tests, or other assessments, according to a host of recent studies from institutions such as Pennsylvania State University and the University of British Columbia.

What happened to kids’ executive function? Basically, pure imagination was kind of squelched and adults (selling stuff) started telling  the stories, says Diane Levin, a professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston.

That has changed dramatically, she says. In the early 1980s, the federal government deregulated children’s advertising, allowing TV shows to essentially become half-hour-long advertisements for toys such as Power Rangers, My Little Ponies, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Levin says that’s when children’s play changed. They wanted specific toys, to use them in the specific way that the toys appeared on TV.

Today, she says, children are “second generation deregulation,” and not only have more toys mostly media-based but also lots of screens.

It’s actually surprising how unsurprising the conclusions of these researchers actually are (well, the mass murderer thing was pretty noteworthy). Of course kids (and adults) need play. Weird that we started believing they don’t.

It’s also aggravating that recess is still getting canceled and standardized tests mean more to a child’s “education” now than they ever have. These studies aren’t new.

What’s interesting, though, is that the whole end of play shift is based on parental and political fear. Parental fear about child safety — so the idea of sending your 7-year-old out to play until dinnertime without a cellphone or baby low-jack or periodic phone calls from neighborhood moms is somewhat unthinkable. And political fear, in terms of education officials and presidents and governors, etc., who worry they can’t be trusted with public money to teach the basics.

I spend a lot of time defending my attitude about standardized tests and even state educational standards, which I think too many education leaders and parents mistake for actual knowledge, actual competence, actual progress in the development of a child. I wonder what they think of conclusions these researchers have made.

What about you? How much time do your kids spend playing without adult supervision or organization and with toys that don’t have screens?


Article Posted 5 years Ago

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