In a Redbook article entitled “How to Let Kids Be Kids,” Judith Newman builds a case for prioritizing play. Here are some highlights.
For starters, she describes the temptation to sign up her kids for all kinds of great after-school activities to keep them busy, busy, busy. She admits:
I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid of modern American parenting. The thinking goes like this: The sooner our children start racking up knowledge and experiences – whether it’s learning Mandarin or perfecting their sidestroke – the greater their lifelong chances for happiness and success. (Plus, there’s this dirty little secret: A lot of parenting is, not to put too fine a point on it, boring. Which would you rather do: watch your child play in dirt or cheer her on as she learns how to sing “Tomorrow” and make jazz hands at a Broadway Babies class?) Failing to fill your child’s life with stimulating organized activities is seen as – well, if not child abuse, at least a form of neglect, because a child’s self-worth is directly related to his or her ability to master stuff. The more stuff, the better. Right?
The more stuff is not the better, she argues in the article. There is, instead, an alternative to this high-achieving, nonstop approach to parenting.
Play—simpler, slower, unstructured play—can be the ticket to real learning and thinking skills (the very things we wanted our kids to gain from all of our rushing around). We think we’re preparing them for life with these packed schedules, that it’s a different world from the one we grew up in. We think that unstructured time is a waste of time for contemporary kids.
But experts disagree. They claim that too many structured activities and complicated toys can be a problem. She cites authors David Elkind, Ph.D., and Nancy Carlsson-Paige, who promote the importance of play:
“A baby who drops a toy repeatedly out of her crib may be annoying, but she’s actually learning about gravity,” explains David Elkind, Ph.D., whose recent book, The Power of Play, examines the critical role of unstructured playtime in kids’ lives. Play, writes Nancy Carlsson-Paige, in her new book, Taking Back Childhood, “is a powerful vehicle through which [kids] can make sense of their experience, master difficult life events, and build new ideas.”
The article cited some statistics from the University of Michigan on how children ages 3 to 12 spend their time. Over the past 20 years:
- There’s been a drop of 12 hours a week of free time overall
- Unstructured activities like walking or camping have fallen by 50 percent
- Structured sports have gone up by 50 percent
Those statistics suggest we will have to go against the trends to preserve some free time in our schedules and leave space for unstructured activities. The article offers several ideas for how to free up our families so that kids can be kids:
- Embrace the joy of goofing around.
From the article: “If you live in an area where you can let your child run amok with his friends outdoors, let him; if you don’t, remember that just hanging with friends and neighbors indoors can be great too.”
- Limit kids to one or two activities per season.
The article said, “For her book The Overachievers, which chronicled the lives of hyper-competitive teens destined for prestigious colleges, Alexandra Robbins interviewed kids of all ages; she found some as young as 6 who complained of stress, and 8-year-olds who were carrying day planners. ‘Kids may have lots of energy, but they get as tense as adults would when they’re overscheduled,’ Robbins says.”
- Eat dinner together.
“Forget homework and extracurriculars,” the article states. “[I]f you really want your children to thrive, break bread with them. ‘For young children, mealtime at home is a stronger predictor of academic achievement and psychological adjustment than time spent in school, studying, sports, church/religious activities, or art activities,’ says William J. Doherty, Ph.D., a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota and author of The Intentional Family. And for older kids? Family dinner is not only a strong predictor of academic success; it is also correlated with lower rates of alcohol and drug use, early sexual behavior, and suicide risk
- Encourage more human time, less screen and toy time.
Our children are spending bigger chunks of time with stuff and less time with people. On car rides in the past, parents used that car time to talk with their kids. Now the kids are watching DVDs while parents talk on the cell phone. As for toys, “A good toy is 90 percent child and only 10 percent toy”; that is, it doesn’t direct the play with only one way that works.
- Introduce computers with caution.
These, the article suggests, are not good for very young kids. Just because computers will be an inevitable part of their lives doesn’t mean we should aim for super-early exposure.
- Reclaim summer.
She writes, “Children and parents need that hiatus to recharge. As a bonus, if you relax over the summer, you’re going to be rejuvenated in time for back-to-school. Says Julie Bell-Voorhees, ‘When else are your kids going to catch lightning bugs and learn to play games like Jailbreak with the neighborhood kids?'”
- Be outnumbered.
She describes a mom who likes an ordered, scheduled life. When she had another baby, however, this woman’s older kids enjoyed more freedom and unstructured play because she simply couldn’t drive around as much to dozens of activities. If having a baby is not an option to slowing you down, be outnumbered by inviting others into your life. Instead of going places, become the hub of activity for your child’s friends—just be prepared to deal with a messier, louder home.
- Learn to trust your child.
“This may be the most important parenting rule of all, says Elkind. ‘Children are self-directed learners – they are naturally curious – and how they learn is through play.'”
Get to know Ann Kroeker better at annkroeker.com