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The death of play – a modern plague

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Work hard, play hard, has become a motto of our times, but unfortunately these words do not translate into action when it comes to play. The American Academy of Pediatrics published the following statement in an report about the importance of play :

“Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth […] Despite the benefits derived from play for both children and parents, time for free play has been markedly reduced for some children. […] Play is so important to optimal child development that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child.1

Our society and our school systems have systematically downgraded the importance of play in children’s lives, and parents are blindly following suite. Researchers, pediatricians and most other mammalian species have long known that play is integral to the proper and healthy development of cubs and adults in a species. It is the vehicle through which we learn how to master our physical abilities, develop an understanding of social and interpersonal rules, and hone the majority of our cognitive skills. All mammals use play to a certain extent to learn how to negotiate the world; the more complex the mammal, the more play is part of their development. Despite this, our schools days have become longer, our recessed shorter, and the time children used to have for free play after school (or chores/work before mandatory schooling) has been usurped by structured activities, extracurricular “enrichment” and potentially some play-like activities in the form of organized sports*.  No wonder children are so tired that when they do get some down time they opt for passive entertainment such as TV, video games or internet surfing. To add insult to injury, we have crippled our children’s activity by setting innumerable rules and restrictions on how they can and should play; not too loudly, not to aggressively, not too much physical contact, not anything involving eliminating winning or beating someone else. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the restrictions placed on boys’ fighting and war games.

What kids get out of playing.


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All kinds of play are important, but a special case can be made for unstructured and imaginative play. There is a strong correlation between pretend play and cognitive and social development. Specifically high quality pretend play is associated with better language development, perspective taking (which is essential for empathy), and problem solving. In and article in The Independent, Dr. Peter Gray a researcher in Bio-Psychology writes:

“Play, by definition, is voluntary, which means that players are always free to quit. […] When players disagree about how to play, they must negotiate their differences and arrive at compromises. […] Failure to do so would end the game and leave the offender alone, which is powerful punishment for not attending to the others’ wishes and needs. The most fundamental social skill is the ability to get into other people’s minds, to see the world from their point of view. Without that, you can’t have a happy marriage, or good friends, or co-operative work partners. Children practice that skill continuously in their social play. “

Play also teaches children how to self-regulate on an emotional and a physical level. Games that involve takings risks teach us to understand and master fear. Having to delay gratification, share or take turns in play teaches us patience and self soothing. Physical play promotes muscular and skeletal growth, it teaches us to push our limits, and find out what our bodies can do. It helps us develop visual-spatial awareness, dexterity and strength. Removing these opportunities from children means crippling them and again, acording to Dr. Gray that is exactly what research has been showing us:

“This dramatic decline in children’s opportunities to play has been accompanied by an equally dramatic increase in childhood mental disorders. It’s not just that we are detecting such disorders where we failed to look before; the increase is real. Clinical assessment questionnaires, which have been administered to normative groups in unchanged form over the years, show that rates of clinically significant depression and anxiety in US schoolchildren are now five to eight times what they were in the 1950s. “

How you can guarantee your child’s right to play:

The most important piece of advice I can give you is this: make time for your kids to have free play. Encourage your children to play, allow them down time, free of chores, homework and screens. Allow your children to get bored. Boredom is a state that is difficult to tolerate for most children, which means that they will initially pester you and may try to push for passive entertainment (TV, computer games, internet access), but if you hold out they will eventually find something to do. It is in their DNA to play, get busy and engage with the world. If you as an adult don’t rob them of that opportunity they will eventually take it.

The second recommendation I have is to back away and let them do their thing. Engage them if you have to, but let them direct the play. This is especially true with toddlers and young preschoolers who sometimes need/want their parents to help them play, but too often get stifled by an overly- involved adult. There have been a number of articles on the ill effects of helicopter parenting, so I will not write about it (do an internet search if you have yet to come across one in your own online meanderings), but suffice to say that the last generation or two of parents has been impeding their children and robbing them of a real, risk taking, exciting and potentially dangerous (i.e. truly educational) childhood. Let your children choose their play; assuming no major psychological trauma or issues, it will probably involve a normal amount of aggression, anger, selfish, egocentric, unfair activity and that is okay. Understand that as much as you would like your little boys and girls to be well rounded and fair to the other sex their play will be gender typed and different; this too is okay.

small mom and meFinal piece of advice: after all is said and done also take some time to play with them! Ask them how they want you to play: roll around, play house, run, wrestle, have a tea party or a shoot out or simply use this shared time as an opportunity to play board games. As important as play is for children it is also important for adults to engage in (see upcoming part II of this post).

*NB: organized sports might provide an opportunity for physical development and social development, but they lack the fluidity and problem solving opportunities offered by free or imaginary play without adult intrusion.

Other articles and sources on play

National Association for the Education of Young Children’s perspective on play
American Academy of Pediatrics report on play
Short guide and info sheet from Montana State University on play
Role of Pretend Play in Children’s Cognitive Development – ECRP Vol VI, 1.
Live Science a Top 5 list of the benefits of play
The independent – Dr. Gray’s perspective

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Hi! I'm Dr. Alessandra Wall

I help smart driven women and forward-thinking companies bridge the gap & build real conversations.

Here on the ‘Dr. Wall Says’, I share tools, tips, and insights about speaking up, getting heard and how women can take up space and thrive in the 21st century.

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