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Play Matters

Air Date: 01/25/11 Cheryl can be reached at 775-331-6723 or at cheryl.erwin@sbcglobal.net. Not long ago, one of my clients, a 10-year-old girl, walked into my office for her appointment and asked if I would mind if she did homework while we talked. Her father shrugged and said, "She has a lot of work and her grades are important. We just don't have any time to waste." Actually, therapy doesn't work too well if you're multi-tasking, so I respectfully requested that the papers be put away for an hour. But it's impossible to escape the reality that American children have never felt so pressured to succeed. Their progress is tested constantly; art, music, and recess have disappeared from schools in an effort to focus on academics and there is pressure to reward teachers whose students do well-and to punish those whose students struggle. Conversations happen in my office nearly every day about homework and how to motivate kids to care more. And when children do have free time, they tend to spend it in front of a screen-7 hours and 38 minutes each day on average, according to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation. So a recent story in the New York Times certainly caught my attention. It said that parents who want their kids to go to college should encourage them to play. Actually, if you do an online search on children and play, you'll discover a spate of recent books, studies, and articles-so many that this topic is on the verge of becoming a genuine movement. An astonishing number of psychologists, educators, and neurobiologists believe that most of the social and intellectual skills needed to succeed in work and in life are first developed through play. It's worth noting that adults often get in the way of play. We want everything to happen in a predictable manner; we're on a schedule and we like structure. We're also big on rules and how things should be done-but the experts define play as games or activities initiated and directed by children. In other words, creativity and exploration are the most important parts of play-not following the rules or winning. Kindergarten classrooms used to feature play areas, dress-up clothes, and lots of laughter. Now they have rows of computers. It isn't play if it's not fun, folks. Children learn to control impulses and take turns when they play. They learn to cooperate and collaborate. They learn negotiation and problem-solving. And they nurture creativity. Building a fort in the back yard or a house out of sofa cushions may be messy and unpredictable, but it's an essential part of growing a healthy, curious brain. Toys are often most entertaining when they're used for something other than their original purpose-but parents often fuss about missing game pieces and broken toys. Sadly, only one in five children live within walking distance of a park or playground-and most of those have parents who are so worried about stranger danger that they're not allowed to go anyway. The New York Times reported on an event staged by a coalition called Play for Tomorrow last fall in Central Park. The National Science Foundation helped organize this event, which featured games like I Spy, mounds of clay, sidewalk chalk, blocks, puzzles, and much more. Organizers hoped to attract 10,000 people; they got more than 50,000. Parents these days are breathtakingly busy, and they often don't have much tolerance for mess. But in order to give your children the benefits of real, honest-to-goodness play, you will have to accept a little less structure and a little more, well, chaos. Early childhood educators understand the value of play and include finger-paints, bowls of flour or rice, and water play in their classroom schedules. If that vision makes you feel horrified, remember that messy play can provide a great opportunity to work together on the skills of cleaning up. Children may also need some help in figuring out how to play without electronic gadgets or adult supervision. You can begin by putting down that smart phone and playing with your children. You may discover that no one enjoys that game of hide-and-seek or Capture the Flag more than you do. It seems sad, somehow, that we have to urge parents to allow their children to do something that young humans-and young animals-have done instinctively since the dawn of time. But we play for good reasons. Academic success is important. Isn't it good to know that it is enhanced by good old-fashioned play? For KUNR, this is Cheryl Erwin.