All work, no play: Not healthy for kids

By Lenore Skenazy

Every day after school, and all day on weekends, kids run outside … to get to their soccer league, or ballet lesson, or origami boot camp. It’s all good, but here’s what it isn’t: Play.

Playing is something else entirely, a chance for kids to make up games, run around, paint a rock or climb a tree. And it is this kind of open-ended, unstructured “just goofing around” that is not only pleasant, but absolutely critical to healthy child development. If we want kids to become problem-solving, socialized, self-controlled people – and we do – we can’t keep filling all their free time with adult-led activities.

Why not? Because when adults lead an activity, kids become followers. But when kids lead an activity, they get practice at becoming adults. They’re being leaders. Doers. Entrepreneurs. Not cogs.

That’s the idea behind the “Genius of Play,” an initiative of the Toy Industry Association to raise awareness of play’s importance, and it was the topic of a panel discussion at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan the other day, moderated by the former editor of Parents Magazine, Dana Points.

While many parents think of play time as empty calories and believe that even pre-schoolers should spend more time being instructed on math and reading skills, Points sees it differently.

“More play time at age 3 is directly related to better vocabulary in kindergarten,” Points said. “Active play not only helps develop coordination and motor skills, it’s also connected to better sleeping and eating habits. Researchers in Germany found a significant correlation between ample free time [in childhood] and adult social success.”

What’s the connection? Nancy Schulman, former head of the 92nd street Y’s pre-K program and now head of the Early Learning Center at the Avenues school, put it bluntly: “Everything about play benefits kids. Curiosity, inventiveness, self-esteem, and resilience are the four things that kids really get through play.”

Think about what you see when you watch a kid playing.

“They will try something over and over and over again and keep failing but keep trying because they are setting the agenda,” Schulman said. “They want to make the cat’s cradle, or kick the ball harder. That’s the kind of intense focus they will need in school — and life — but the classroom is a tough place to breed it. When kids are self-motivated, as they are in play (nobody’s forcing anyone to jump Double Dutch), they get the experience of hard work and practicing without balking at, well, the hard work and practicing.”

They also get the experience of making something happen. To get a game going, even a game of “I’m the princess, you’re the frog,” you need to convince someone else to play with you. This involves all sorts of social skills, said Leslie Bushara, deputy director of guest services at the Museum.

“You’re negotiating, you’re listening,” Bushara said.

And if what you hear is that your friend doesn’t want to be the frog, you have to absorb that and adjust or you may not be able to play at all. So you come up with a workable solution: Let’s both be princesses.

In the workplace, Bushara said, this is called “leadership.”

In Little League or hip-hop class, kids learn certain technical skills and teamwork, but they are not making something happen. What’s more, they are being judged, so they’re not totally free to make up a new game or dance. Free play doesn’t have an authority watching and grading, which means kids get to use their imaginations. If they come up with something that doesn’t work – who cares? It’s just fun. You can’t run the bases backwards at Little League, but you can if you’re “just” playing.

Voila! The seeds of innovation are planted.

This is the first generation to be deprived of the chance to just hang out with their buddies, getting all those good things going.

“Only a quarter of our kids 6 to 15 are getting 60 minutes of play a day,” said Kim McCall, executive director of New York/New Jersey Playworks, an organization that sends play instructors into schools to teach kids the playground games their older siblings perhaps no longer teach them. And, McCall said, many schools take even the meager 20-minute recess away from kids as a punishment, when recess is probably what those kids need the most.

How can we give kids back their right to play when parents and schools face so many time constraints and fears? Actually, it’s surprisingly easy. After school, just keep the gym and/or playground open for free play. Maybe have an adult in the corner, for insurance reasons. But otherwise, just throw out some balls, jump ropes and cardboard boxes and let the kids have at it.

A mind is a terrible thing to waste … by “teaching” it all the time.

Lenore Skenazy is a keynote speaker, founder of the book and blog Free-Range Kids, and a contributor at Reason.com.

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