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scores, grades, advanced curricula, extracurricular activities, and longer school days, something very important is being left out: children’s play. Play is vitally important to children, not just to their social and emotional development, but to their academic achievement as well. Besides just being fun, play is the way that children make the world their own, make sense of all their new experiences and knowledge, and recover from life’s upsets. They need as much of it as they can get, even if it doesn’t look like it’s “constructive.” Developmentally, young children need lots of time to run around, to act goofy, to not have to be anywhere at any given time, to play endless games of Barbie, or fantasy dress-up games, or what I call disorganized sports, where children get to argue about the rules and work out conflicts and figure out fairness and decide for themselves whether to keep score or not. And I’m not just talking about elementary-school children. Older children and teenagers, developmentally speaking, need hanging out time. Their developmental task is to figure out who they are, and all the pressures to be involved in — and excel in — 17 different things, can interfere with that. If they are pushing themselves, and most students are, then they especially need down time to recover their strength and energy for the next push. Many teachers include (or would like to include) play activities in their classrooms, knowing that this will enhance their student’s cognitive, social, and physical development. But they often find themselves on the defensive. Parents and administrators may view anything that isn’t on the test or in the curriculum as a waste of time. One teacher told me that when she dared to bring up the question of whether a child was happy, the parent said: “Happy doesn’t get you into Harvard.” We are well past the idea that children just need facts drummed into them. We want our children to be creative, imaginative, flexible thinkers. In that case, play is crucial — in school and out of school. But even if we only cared about our children getting good grades and getting into a good college, I would still argue for a greater amount of play. I believe that more dramatic play and other types of play should be incorporated into the curriculum at every level. The trend, these days, seems to be in the opposite direction. Even in kindergarten, where play is of such obvious importance, it is steadily being replaced by “more important things.” In fact, I first began to be alarmed about this topic when I heard about some kindergarten classes that were skipping recess because they were behind in the curriculum. A recent study found that people remember new information better if they get a chance to sleep after they learn it. I would bet anything that the same result would be found for playing, because play is how children integrate what they learn. We know that preschool children learn about the world by playing at the water table or in the sandbox or in the doll corner. They learn more, faster, than at any other time in their lives. Why should the methods of teaching change so dramatically as soon as children hit the primary grades? Luckily, independent schools have been spared the worst ravages of the standardized testing push, which along with budget cuts has resulted in a dramatic decline in play and other “nonessential” activities. Independent schools have also been at the forefront of developmental education, which usually comes along with an understanding of the value of play in the classroom. But even in independent schools — with all the pressure of getting to the next level — play is in danger of becoming marginalized.
How much running-around time? Some children need more of one than the other. like hang out at the mall or listen to their music or teach them how to drive. These screens do not provide the kind of playfulness and interactions that children need. make children do community service. socially. they are forced to be more creative in their play. or in some combination of the three. not with games that are based on TV shows or movies or the latest toys. depending on whether they need to get rid of excess energy or they need to stop being so self-centered. teenagers want to be adults. Instead. I have seen boys in therapy who improved dramatically just because. which is one-on-one time between a parent and a child where the child is completely in charge of what they do. for example. physical differences. and the parent gets down on the floor and gives their undivided. which only increase anxiety and strife and take away from playtime.Instead of being shortened or eliminated. Meanwhile. race. enthusiastic attention (no phone calls or dinner preparations or paying the bills). So one big way to promote playfulness is to model it at school. their father started driving them to school. When boys and girls play together. I always recommend what I call PlayTime. Preteens want to be teenagers. Play is also the way that children cross lines that might otherwise keep them separate — lines of sex. or run laps. . Make time for play. or kicking a soccer ball. Is there laughter ringing in the halls? Look at the walls and trophy cases. if there is a language or cultural barrier. children cross it best with games that involve running around acting silly. recess needs to be lengthened and staffed with a greater number of caring adults. and that makes it hard to focus and concentrate and control their impulses. or push ups. class. children have a chance to be children. Since girls usually aren’t so interested in blowing up bad guys. And I always urge teachers not to make children miss recess as a punishment for not doing their homework or for misbehaving — these are often the children most in need of the chance to run around and play. Listen to your school. I am a strong advocate for less homework. children face pressure to grow up too fast. By playing. Besides academic stress. The tendency for parents is to get caught up in homework power struggles. Some are upset about what’s happening at home. School is hard for many children. but only if the extra time is spent really playing. or drawing. or they might make up dramatic games where they slay dragons. so enjoy those moments while they last. emotionally. Some children are anxious about grades. It may be hard academically. Parents often fail to realize the importance of playing with children of all ages. most children don’t get enough of either one. or playing dress-up. They might play at sports or seek out one-on-one time with a parent to soak up some of that individual attention every child needs. Some new research. Do you reward other things besides academic and athletic success? The next step for teachers is to advocate more playfulness at home. In order to recover from these worries and pressures — small or large — children need to play after school. they have to find new activities that work for both parties. Similarly. others about peers. in the classroom and out. Young children might play school. for example. and boys are usually bored with dressing up dolls. Older kids may want to use this time to make you do things you hate to do. suggests that boys who engage in playful rough and tumble wrestling with their dads have more positive social skills than boys who don’t. They don’t have enough closeness time with their parents or anyone else. instead of taking the bus. etc. not sitting down in front of the TV or the computer. by Anthony Pellegrini. Play is an antidote to this type of pressure. Ask parents how much downtime the child gets. I feel strongly that a lot of the children — mainly boys — whom we diagnose with attention disorders really have attachment disorders. Some children spend so many hours on homework that they don’t get much chance to play. the popular culture steps in to fill the gap where a secure attachment ought to be.
and encourages her teachers to do the same. followed by a potluck supper. She recommends that the whole summer be down time. there is not much neuroscience research on play and children’s brains. a good citizen. isn’t enough any more. That puts enormous pressure on the child and the family. Advocating for play at home and at school. fun time. they know this isn’t the school for them. head of the Nashoba-Brooks School (Massachusetts). She told me she tries to recommend that they choose only one special thing. from preschool to adulthood. instead of six weeks at Violin-Soccer-Mountaineering-SAT Prep Camp. We feel terrible turning down wonderfully qualified children. play time. and parents whom you would love to have in the school. or a cellist playing with some renowned group. so I consider that a step in the right direction.” Of course. Some suffer from it. for example. for instance. I like to say. take little heed of this advice. The sixth grade at my daughter’s school. she admits. They have put a great deal of thought into how to promote those intangibles. “Play is what will get your children into Ivy League schools. Of course. The child has to be a soccer player who has reached the state championship. because of the homework requirements. If she can point to studies that report that the growing brain needs sleep and exercise and water. she did say that parents are more inclined to listen when she quotes recent neuroscience research. unpressured time. just had a parents-versus-children volleyball match. Some adults and children need a jump-start like that in order to see how fun it can be to play together. I can’t guarantee that. because there is some self-selection: “If the parents want their child to study Suzuki during recess. about ways schools can help parents lighten up. nice kid. However. “It has become so competitive that most schools have a ten-to-one ratio of applicants to openings. I talk to parents at curriculum night about how play is the work of children.” Cowan also talks to parents.” For those parents. where a wonderful profile for a child five years ago is not enough today. She also acknowledges that it isn’t usually a tough sell. like many schools. scheduling their children for a lot of different activities anyway. and how she tries to encourage steps to reduce stress at home. most parents don’t believe me.Another thing schools can do is help organize or facilitate family playtime. I recently spoke with Kay Cowan. Naturally. about children’s afterschool schedules. “Every year. she gets her highly educated audience’s attention. one has to be prepared for the pointed questions from parents about “wasting time. she said she sees the most parental anxiety around the issue of secondary-school placement. by fostering an environment based on trust and safety. The result is that being a good student. So to get into the “right” school. with complete confidence in my voice. a well-read. She talks to parents a great deal about child development. I see an escalation. However. So how do you decide?” Cowan describes how she tries to promote a playful attitude at school. individually and in school-wide meetings. since play is the poor relation of child development. Nashoba-Brooks. such as happiness. understands the importance of play. but I do know that play does help with children’s cognitive development at every level. “The same thing is happening in kindergarten or pre-K. but also because parents often don’t understand that children need down time. one has to have more than every other child. But there are plenty enough data from generations of teachers and clinicians and careful observers of children’s play to convince us. they usually either laugh or they are taken aback for a minute. where children and adults listen to one . As she says.” Many parents. As the head of an elementary school.
and 20 minutes in the afternoon. of Best Friends. the focus is on the children learning and growing.” Except for a few Neanderthals out there. At events like the school choral concert. except for not being paid at all and constantly hearing lip-service to the idea that theirs is “the most important job in the world. we all know that teachers are underpaid and overworked and undervalued. and it is never skipped. Go out and play! Lawrence Cohen is a psychologist in private practice in Brookline. not just on special occasions. and Encourage Children’s Confidence. We can all use some help in lightening up. Worst Enemies. each of these groups is under a lot of pressure. to play. namely play. and the kids have fun. He also writes a column for The Boston Globe.” Cowan acknowledges. More specifically. Parents. Solve Behavior Problems. are pretty much in the same boat. rather than on a level of professionalism that would be developmentally inappropriate. “but the adults in the audience thoroughly enjoy the high quality show. Instead. He is the author of Playful Parenting: A Bold New Way to Nurture Close Connections.another.” What children do most and best. to sprawl on the floor every school day. meanwhile. isn’t valued very highly in our society either. . Massachusetts. and coauthor. “It may not blow your socks off if you are expecting a Broadway show. along with Michael Thompson and Catherine O’Neill Grace. the school has a half-hour of recess in the morning. The rest of the time he spends playing. and it’s understandable that anxiety levels are high. The school makes sure teachers understand child development — and that students need time to cuddle.
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