Child's Play Article
Written by Marianne Burkhead, FIRE Teacher, June 2009
Lately, there has been much written in professional journals and other educational resources about the importance of play in children's lives. It appears that often, our society, through popular media and education mandates, discourages the play that is so essential to our children's development.
According to much of the research, children are being "age compressed" that is, younger children are doing what older children used to do. That which used to seem appropriate for teens is influencing the lives of younger children, including media, toys, clothing, and behavior. The result is that children engage in play much less often and less creatively than they should.
In our results-oriented world, play can be regarded as "goofing off" rather than being productive. In many schools, kindergarteners are no longer given many opportunities to imagine, create, frolic, pretend, sing, or dance. Instead, they are subjected to standardized testing, literacy assessments, academic demands, even homework, effectively eliminating much of the time that used to be spent in play. In a survey of teachers in New York and California, results showed that kindergarteners spend up to three hours a day being instructed and tested in reading and math, but only 30 minutes engaged in play. (Orenstein, 2009)
Edward Miller, co-author of "Crisis in the Kindergarten," (www.allianceforchildhood.org) asserts that kindergarten acceleration is of no use and that any advantage gained in that year is lost by the fourth grade. Spending more time in play would be infinitely more beneficial to intellectual development than pushing academics upon our youngest students. What is it about play that is so critical to child development?
Our favorite neighbor, Mr. Rogers, said, "Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning... They have to play with what they know to be true in order to find out more, and then they can use what they learn in new forms of play." Our favorite kindergarten teacher, Hanan Masri says, "Play is everything! For those that shun it as 'wasted time' in the classroom, I point out that while they are taking orders at their restaurant in the dramatic play area, they are writing. While constructing Lego ships, those fine motor muscles are getting a work out. As they dig tunnels in the sand, they are a band of engineers- measuring, estimating, and more. But perhaps most importantly, play is where friendships are born and nurtured. Children learn the importance of teamwork, generosity, and imagination. It is where they learn how to treat others and how they want to be treated. They begin to develop language around conflict resolution and compromise. Play is the basis of civilization!"
According to Dr. Bruce Perry, an internationally recognized authority on brain development, play strengthens every aspect of a child's development. Gross motor skills improve as children walk, run, kick, skip, or jump. Fine motor skills develop as children build, draw, and color.
Hand-eye coordination is enhanced in games that involve throwing and catching. Less obvious benefits come in the form of language development as children engage in play that includes singing, rhyming, and word play (jumping rope, playing tag, dancing). Playful children must also engage in trial and error, problem solving, and strategy. Of course, social skills of communication and cooperation develop through play, as do empathy and the ability to tolerate frustration. In play, children must also learn to negotiate, compromise, and persuade.
Dr. Perry further asserts that "boredom" facilitates creative play. If left to their own devices, children will invent ways to move from "I'm bored" to playfulness. They will become more internally focused, allowing imagination to take over. Television and video games are external, passive stimuli and inhibit productive play. Parents and other adults can also unconsciously hinder the development of play habits by over-scheduling their children's activities. Little time is left for the solitude so essential to creativity and the growth of a fantasy life.
What can we do to encourage the play lives of our children? We can educate ourselves on the power of fun and the benefits of solitude and unstructured time. We can provide our children plenty of opportunities to engage in creative, imaginative activities without planning or intervention. We can un-schedule their days and give them time to themselves. We can turn off the television, video games, and even the computer. And, along with them, we can skip, sing, recite poetry, pretend, pick flowers, walk the dog, throw a ball, play cards, build with blocks, and make paper dolls and mud pies and sand castles. Who knows what the future could be in a world populated by playful people?
McLaughlin, Geralyn Bywater. "Six,Going on Sixteen." Rethinking Schools Online. Spring 2009.
Orenstein, Peggy. "KindergartenCram." The New York Times. 29 April 2009.
Perry, Bruce Duncan, MD. "The Importance of Pleasure in Play." Early Childhood Today. April, 2003.