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PLAY Is Vital for Healthy Children

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PLAY Is Vital for Healthy Children

By Linda Dobson

It’s an old article, from 2008, but its urgently important message enjoyed a new round of attention as it was passed around by friends, most especially friends who homeschool. You see, it’s kind of like a feather in our cap because it confirms what those who educate their children at home have discovered – even if very few listen to us: Play time isn’t frivolous; it’s vital to children’s development. Why?

“Researchers say imaginative play allows children to make their own rules and practice self-control.”

play

Play helps children learn self-control.

The article by Alix Spiegel, titled “Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills,” appears on NPR’s website, and relies in large part on research by Howard Chudacoff, a cultural historian at Brown University. Please take the time to read this, then visit the original article as something as simple as allowing children time for play does have significant impact on the rest of their lives. This topic is so important I chose to share it in greater detail here.

Until 1955, ad budgets at toy companies were minuscule, so the only time they could afford to hawk their wares on TV was during Christmas. But then came Mattel and the Thunder Burp, which, according to Howard Chudacoff, a cultural historian at Brown University, was a kind of historical watershed. Almost overnight, children’s play became focused, as never before, on things — the toys themselves.

See also “10 Quick and Useful Fun Learning Tips

History of Children’s Play

Now, I’m afraid I’m far too young (alright, a bit too young) to confirm if 1955 was indeed the turning point in the way American culture treated children’s play, but it sounds about right (my being too young to remember aside; ahem).

Chudacoff’s recently published history of child’s play argues that for most of human history what children did when they played was roam in packs large or small, more or less unsupervised, and engage in freewheeling imaginative play. They were pirates and princesses, aristocrats and action heroes. Basically, says Chudacoff, they spent most of their time doing what looked like nothing much at all.

“They improvised play, whether it was in the outdoors… or whether it was on a street corner or somebody’s back yard,” Chudacoff says. “They improvised their own play; they regulated their play; they made up their own rules.”

But during the second half of the 20th century, Chudacoff argues, play changed radically. Instead of spending their time in autonomous shifting make-believe, children were supplied with ever more specific toys for play and predetermined scripts. Essentially, instead of playing pirate with a tree branch they played Star Wars with a toy light saber. Chudacoff calls this the commercialization and co-optation of child’s play — a trend which begins to shrink the size of children’s imaginative space.

But commercialization isn’t the only reason imagination comes under siege. In the second half of the 20th century, Chudacoff says, parents became increasingly concerned about safety, and were driven to create play environments that were secure and could not be penetrated by threats of the outside world. Karate classes, gymnastics, summer camps — these create safe environments for children, Chudacoff says. And they also do something more: for middle-class parents increasingly worried about achievement, they offer to enrich a child’s mind.

Here’s the nitty gritty of the bad things that happen to children who don’t get to play.

Change in Play, Change in Kids

Clearly the way that children spend their time has changed. Here’s the issue: A growing number of psychologists believe that these changes in what children do has also changed kids’ cognitive and emotional development.

It turns out that all that time spent playing make-believe actually helped children develop a critical cognitive skill called executive function. Executive function has a number of different elements, but a central one is the ability to self-regulate. Kids with good self-regulation are able to control their emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline.

We know that children’s capacity for self-regulation has diminished. A recent study replicated a study of self-regulation first done in the late 1940s, in which psychological researchers asked kids ages 3, 5 and 7 to do a number of exercises. One of those exercises included standing perfectly still without moving. The 3-year-olds couldn’t stand still at all, the 5-year-olds could do it for about three minutes, and the 7-year-olds could stand pretty much as long as the researchers asked. In 2001, researchers repeated this experiment. But, psychologist Elena Bodrova at Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning says, the results were very different.

“Today’s 5-year-olds were acting at the level of 3-year-olds 60 years ago, and today’s 7-year-olds were barely approaching the level of a 5-year-old 60 years ago,” Bodrova explains. “So the results were very sad.”

Sad because self-regulation is incredibly important. Poor executive function is associated with high dropout rates, drug use and crime. In fact, good executive function is a better predictor of success in school than a child’s IQ. Children who are able to manage their feelings and pay attention are better able to learn. As executive function researcher Laura Berk explains, “Self-regulation predicts effective development in virtually every domain.”

Unfortunately, in the school environment (where successes of this nature are purported to be important), children are not receiving ample opportunity to engage in “self talk” and “self regulation” and play. (Hmm, do you wonder why this is??)

Despite the evidence of the benefits of imaginative play, however, even in the context of preschool young children’s play is in decline. According to Yale psychological researcher Dorothy Singer, teachers and school administrators just don’t see the value.

“Because of the testing, and the emphasis now that you have to really pass these tests, teachers are starting earlier and earlier to drill the kids in their basic fundamentals. Play is viewed as unnecessary, a waste of time,” Singer says. “I have so many articles that have documented the shortening of free play for children, where the teachers in these schools are using the time for cognitive skills.”

The article’s sidebar includes ideas you can use to help your child play and build the skills necessary for future success. What “everybody’s doing” today isn’t working very well, and lack of self-regulation in youngsters, teens and even young adults is glaringly obvious. Step out of the box, and take your children back to a time – any time – before 1955.

It seems that in the rush to give children every advantage — to protect them, to stimulate them, to enrich them — our culture has unwittingly compromised one of the activities that helped children most. All that wasted time was not such a waste after all.

It has always been; it will always be. Play is children’s most important work.

 

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