Play matters

On the local evening news recently, I listened to a fifteen-year-old boy being interviewed after participating at a skateboard event in the area.  Skateboarding, he said, was his absolute passion.  He shared that in skateboarding, kids teach themselves, watch others, set their own goals.  This was what first attracted him to the sport.  I was taken by his spirit.

I started thinking about what he said and realized, sadly, that maybe skateboarding is the last bastion of initiative  left for young people to explore on their own.  So far, at least, I haven’t heard of any skateboarding classes or adult-led instruction.  The freedom and anticipation to independently choose and learn through play, through watching, through waiting till one feels ready for many of childhood’s experiences, has morphed over the years to today’s need for lessons, at earlier and earlier ages, to perfect one’s skills.

Experts are discovering how this emphasis on adult-directed instruction aimed at younger children is interrupting the development of self-regulation in our children.  Preschools, daycares, kindergartens and elementary classrooms are recognizing this more and more.   The children lack the ability to self-regulate.  Self-regulation is being able to control oneself  independently, without the need for outside authority. 

A recent international study found that the 7-year-olds of today have self-regulation levels more like those of the preschool child of the 1940’s.  They attributed this to the decline in both the quantity and quality of dramatic, pretend play in young children’s lives and the rise in adult-directed activities designed to teach specific skills.  Children are spending less and less time playing – dramatic play, make-believe-play, pretend play, on-their-own-what-shall-we-play-today-play, at home, in preschools and in kindergarten, and this is affecting the way children interact with each other, their own initiative, and their ability to self-regulate and problem-solve.   Children are also watching more TV and playing on computers at earlier ages.  These activities do not offer the same advantage as pretend play.

For children to reap the benefits of dramatic play,one of the key elements is Time – time to plan their play, figure out each others’ roles, find their props.  And while they are planning, they are talking to each other, making concessions, suggesting, listening, allowing, maturing in their ability to play,to self-regulate, to be curious,  to use their own initiative , preparing themselves for future success in the classroom, on the sports field, or in the orchestra. 

So this summer, stop and think before you sign your children up for too many extra progrms.  Instead, let them play together, give them time, offer sand and water, blocks and dress-up clothes, cardboard boxes, a blanket over the clothes line and watch them play – and learn.

They’ll be figuring out the world around them,  fueling their own sense of curiosity and imagination, their ability to make decisions. 

 And like the 15-year-old skateboarder, learning and setting their own goals – with passion.

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