This continues a thread started yesterday on creating a culture of play for children. Today introduces some research on the importance of both organized, adult-led activities, as well as the importance of unstructured free time in child development.
It is difficult to carve out space for free play in children’s lives when the cultural message continually leads parents to believe they are being bad parents if they do not expose their children to every possible activity to set-them on the track to success. Even though adults might feel like they are running rampant, the fear is that their kids will fall behind if not continuing to move at the fast pace. Other parents often talk about their children’s activities; college admissions are getting more competitive and looking not only for high academic ratings but also involvement in a variety of activities; and research supports that organized activities have great emotional, social, and academic benefits. Participating in organized sports, for instance, contributes to a sense of identity, positive peer relationships, a connection to school, and some students claim that participating in sports contributed to their academic achievement and academic aspirations (Rosewater, 2009). The benefits of organized youth activities have been documented and widely shared. And heavy involvement in organized activities fits well with the cultural norm of busyness. I completely understand that parents don’t want to hurt their children by depriving them of these opportunities.
Parents should absolutely continue to encourage and support organized youth activities, but should be careful to not push too far without the inclusion of downtime, and especially for younger children, unstructured (i.e. not adult led) free time. For young children, free play creates opportunities to expand imagination and creativity, sets a foundation for social interaction, builds sensory motor and brain development, and is a natural way to learn how to deal with stress (Papalia, Wendkos Olds, & DuskinFeldman, 2009, pp. 264-268). Children’s play with blocks of counting, stacking, and estimating helps build mathematical concepts, and dramatic play establishes a foundation for literacy skills as children pretend adult behaviors, such as creating tickets for a puppet show or ‘reading’ the chalkboard when playing out aspects of school. Play provides a healthy way for children to deal with stress; Kenealy (1989) found that over 50% of children who were dealing with emotions of depression used some form of play activity to relieve that stress in their lives (as sited in Russ, 1998, p. 476). The loss of unstructured free time, Professor Nancy Carlsson-Page of Lesley University believes, will only ‘undermine the children’s success in school and academic competence for years to come’ (as stated in Miller & Almon, 2009, pg. 23). When playtime is cut from an early age, children are set-up for a stressful development path.
Adults can easily make the correlation to the importance of free play for older children and even their own lives when considering that often experienced stressful feeling of too much activity. The current phenomenon of constant academics and adult-led activities has caused moms like Vicki Abeles, ex-Wall street lawyer and mother of three, to worry about the undue stress to their children. Abeles saw the effects of this crazed schedule on her own children and set out to make a documentary, Race to Nowhere (2010), which showcases children from across the country who are facing emotional and physical health difficulties because of their stressful personal and school schedules. Indeed, there are numerous studies, several summarized by Ginsburg and the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health (2007), which show an increase in childhood and adolescent depression (pg. 184). By removing one of the main vehicles for dealing with stress, play, a culture is created that is so focused on the end-goal of perceived success—whether that be an ivy league education or high paying job—that we often fail to acknowledge a different definition of success and spend time enjoying life.
Up next: a look at play in K12 schools.
Abeles, V. (2010). Race to nowhere. U.S.: Reel Link Films.
Ginsburg, K. (2007). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. American Academy of Pediatrics, 199(1), 182-191. doi: 10.1542/peds.2006-2697
Miller, E, & Almon J. (2009). Crisis in the kindergarten: Why children need to play in school. College Park, MD: Alliance for Childhood.
Papalia, D., Wendkos Olds, S., & Duskin Feldman, R. (2009). Human development (Eleventh Edition. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Rosewater, A. (2009, February). Learning to play and playing to learn: Organized sports and educational outcomes. Retrieved from http://teamupforyouth.org
Russ, S. (1998). Play, creativity, and adaptive functioning: Implications for play interventions. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology 27(4), 469-480.