I've been thinking a lot lately about the loss of "free play" in the lives of many children. Thanks to structured adult-led activities, screen time, video games and the like many children are losing the art of play and the benefits it entails. Here's a NY Times article from not too long ago that discusses this further. I highly recommend reading it if the topic interests you.
What is free play exactly? Here's a quote from a pediatric article I read:
"It is important to note that this kind of play is meant to be unstructured, child driven play. It is not the kind of play time that is totally controlled by adults and doesn't include passive play, such as sitting in front of a video game, computer, or TV.
Keep in mind that just because free play isn't controlled by adults doesn't mean that you shouldn't supervise your kids while they are playing, especially if they are playing outside.
Examples of Free PlayTrue free play is any kind of unstructured activity that encourages your child to use his imagination, such as playing with blocks and dolls. It wouldn't include playing with most electronic toys.
A group of kids playing soccer in the backyard together, versus only playing on a team with a coach, would be another good example of free play time. This type of active free play is also a good way to help your kids meet their daily physical activity requirements."
OK. So, it's basically active play where kids use their imaginations instead of passively being entertained by a toy or other stimulus that does all the work. This reminds me of how I used to play when I was a child.
I LOVED my childhood. I frolicked and played outside in sun and snow, often not coming in "until the streetlight" came on. I dug for worms; my parents didn't mind me messing up the yard a little. I made mud pies and pretended to run a bakery on the stone property border/wall. I played kickball with the neighborhood boys and rode my bikes all over our part of town (after learning on the tricycle and then the Big Wheel). I loved to collect insects, turning big rocks over to see what lived underneath. I examined ants and studied their travels and made up stories about where they were going. In winter I stayed outside sledding, building snow forts and snow kitchens and rolling around. When I went to my best friend's house, we made elaborate mazes for her kitten to run through in her room. We walked through the woods behind her house and frolicked with her dog. We played music on her keyboard and puzzled our way through computer mystery games (when we were older). I remember being VERY young and pretending our couch was a ship. I remember taking a blanket and creating a "tent" in my bedroom where I pretended I was a boy scout (I guess I didn't think girl scouts were rugged enough?). I spent hours in that tent during rainy days with my books, rope (for practicing knots), stuffed animal friends, and a flashlight. I didn't need much space (my bedroom was maybe 7 feet x 7 feet or so with a slanted wall on one side.) People complain about having small apartments and not having room for their kids to have this kind of play so I'm a good example of the fact that you don't need a ton of space to use your imagination. I remember Kindergarten being so awesome. There was a corner with giant cardboard blocks, a doll area, a kitchen area, an art corner, a book corner, an area with a few tables for us all to sit at, and a rug for circle time and listening to stories. And, for when we were well-behaved, one or two of us would get rewarded with permission to play in the indoor sandbox that we could stand at. I remember the day we learned about the letter 'V' and we made vests (starts with 'V'!!!) out of paper grocery bags. We colored them violet. (starts with 'V'!!!!) Anyway, there was magic in getting lost in my own little world during my play time.
The NY Times article I mentioned quotes a woman who toured the Kindergarten in her town and was shocked to find a wall of computers and a bunch of little desks and that's it. That surprises me. Also, it just doesn't seem developmentally appropriate? Maybe I'm naive?
My friend, a 3rd grade teacher's aide, told me that the children in her classroom have no clue what to do when there is indoor recess due to inclement weather. They sort of sit and stare at each other and it takes a lot of suggestions to get them going. I can't imagine that!!
It makes me sad.
Here is a list of articles on the importance of play, why it matters, what children learn through play, and some play ideas if you are interested in more information on the topic. They are helpful!
This is all easy to say, but what about the reality of the pressures?
Another friend told me that her son is having trouble keeping up with the skills the other boys have in a certain sport he is participating in. They all started in 1st grade. He didn't start until about 6th or 7th grade (which I thought was normal?). Needless to say, his skills are no where near those of the other boys in his 8th grade class and it shows; and is affecting him. sigh. There's so much pressure to start children SO EARLY in activities so they can compete and stay on par with the other kids. But how far is too far? Is it ever enough? I also realize that people are concerned with safety these days. Surely we can still adopt SOME of the old ways of playing to suit our needs? I know we can't exactly just let our kids roam free until the street lights come on anymore...sigh.
Here's my commitment:
I'm going to do my best to allow Paige to have as much time for free playing while she is a child as possible. (of COURSE she'll have chores and responsibilities to tend to as well). I'll let her help me do my adult tasks around the house as much as she wants to while she's young (she thinks it is so fun and she's learning so it's a win-win.). I'll encourage her creativity and imagination as much as possible through limited screen time, open-ended simple toys, and lots of outdoor play/romping. I'm fine with organized activities, as long as there aren't too many. I can see it will be hard to be selective, but in my opinion it is a must to limit them. I'm going to remember that everything is fine in moderation. I want Paige to relate to her peers, be able to perform to her academic capacities, enjoy extra-curriculars, and lead a happy life...this is the mission I will try to remember when the pressures to do more or less start to attack. It's a new world we live in, but I can still do my part to keep it a little bit magical for a little bit longer for my wee one. And clearly it is in her best interest when it comes to creative problem solving and the like.
I know I may sound over-concerned...my daughter is barely two. But, time goes by fast. As I make plans for her birthday gifts and start thinking about what activities we can do through the year ahead I want to be conscious of how each decision impacts her. Do I get the electronic toy du jour? Or, do I go with the simple play silks and wooden blocks? Each decision shapes the whole issue of play and its quality.
In the spirit of sharing...while I find it to be a very idealistic account; I found this piece of writing to be inspirational for me on a personal level. Some of the bits really resonate with me.