My daughter ran shrieking through the house, saying something about Zeus, and the Cyclops, and I think she mentioned Hercules in there somewhere. As she bounded up the stairs, my son zoomed past me, too. With a sword in one hand he yelled, “We’re the bad sea monsters, and Shaggy and Scooby are going to help us defeat the Hydra!”
It all started with the Magic Tree house series. My kids adore their Jack and Annie adventures. So, when we read Hour of the Olympics, I also checked out a book about some Greek myths. Both my kids were enthralled with the old stories, as they are drawn to all things involving adventure, monsters, and heroes, as I suppose most kids are.
So, I’ve brought more Greek things into the house. We’ve watched documentaries about Ancient Greece, watched animated versions of many of the myths and Jim Henson’s the Storyteller: Greek Myths on Netflix. We’ve read several books in the Good Times Travel Agency series, so I checked out the one about Ancient Greece. I also found at the library with Greek projects.
Their play intertwines and weaves what we’re reading together with the characters they like to watch on T.V., the places we’ve travelled to, and the ideas we’ve talked about that come from living. It’s incredible to listen to how they make sense of it all through their play. It’s only after long sessions of pretend play that they come back with well thought-out questions and insights. It’s after play that they draw wonderful things and come up with creative stories.
But this creative, free play disappears when most children begin attending school or start school-at-home. Being placed in a disjointed learning atmosphere where they go from tracing letters, to filling out addition worksheets, to reading a story about worms, to eating lunch, to a hurried twenty minutes outside, to painting a picture, to reading a story about doctors at a hospital, to sitting in groups reading from a leveled reader; they jump from activity to activity without having time to digest it all let alone weave it together into a connected whole.
In The Serious Need for Play, a February 2009 article featured on the Scientific American website, psychiatrist Stuart Brown discusses his research into the childhoods of 6,000 adults. I found it incredibly fascinating that his research indicates that adults who do not experience significant amounts of unstructured, imaginative play when they are children have difficulty becoming socially adept, coping with stress and developing problem solving skills.
Let’s take a look at the difficulty at becoming socially adept. How does play help children to grow and develop socially? It’s through play children can take on different roles. They can try out the role of being a mother or father, an artist or an adventurer. They also learn the valuable skills of sharing, empathizing, cooperating and collaborating. Young kids need hours of this type of play every day, not just thirty minutes during “free time.”
I don’t know about you, but it seems to me the social benefits of play are far greater than memorizing dates and facts that can be looked up on Google or spending hundreds of hours “learning” how to read when kids will pick up reading very quickly when they’re ready. It’s also pretty incredible to me how people think homeschooled children are not well socialized when children who do not attend school are in the position to spend an incredible amount of time in unstructured play, which is critically important in learning how to work and live with others.
Then there’s the difficulty of coping with stress. Think about the times you’ve felt the most alive, the most free, when you’ve totally lost track of time. Chances are you were involved with some type of play. As adults, if you’re lucky, that might even be an activity that you’re getting paid for, too. Some adults run, or get lost in a story, or talk with friends, or paint, or do Sudoku, or bake a cake. The play may look different as you get older, but its importance remains the same.
But today, many children find they hardly have any time for unstructured play. They may seem like they’re playing when they go to soccer practice, or playing piano, or coloring a picture in a classroom, but if it’s not an activity of their choice, if someone is directing the activity and there’s little room for creativity, than it’s not play. And when children do not have most of their day to play, in purposeful, meaningful activities, they experience stress. If adults have little say in how their day is spent, they experience stress, too.
And we wonder why teens, adults, and sadly, even children, experiment with drugs, alcohol and sex? They feel a need an escape from their lives. They need to enter a state where their mind is free to take off in a million directions. They need to feel relaxed enough to do the things they want to do. It’s unhealthy, self-destructive, and often damaging to those around them, but no one has shown them, or rather allowed them, to have time to themselves, or to develop a passion or creative outlet that relieves the stress of normal living.
Finally, there’s the idea of problem solving. Many people think of math or logic when they hear the term problem solving. It sounds like something difficult, something they want to avoid. But we are born problem solvers. It’s something we WANT to do. Little children solve the problem of communicating with others, getting to where they want to go, figuring out how to avoid danger, deciding the best way to get a person’s attention, and a thousand other problems.
It’s when children are suddenly placed in a situation where they are given inauthentic problems, problems they could care less about, that they start to resist. On top of being given inauthentic problems, they are suddenly being graded for how well they’re doing. They are told they are “failing” at something, or they are behind others in solving these problems they never wanted to solve in the first place.
Children who grow up in freedom to come up with their own problems to solve don’t learn to be afraid of failure. They see something not working the way they’d like as simply a part of the problem solving process. Through play children learn to see things in different ways, to combine unrelated things in unusual ways and persist in accomplishing their goals.
The importance of play is well known. It’s been written about in dozens of scholarly journals and researched by hundreds of people. The positive link between lots of unstructured play and creativity has been proven again and again in the lives of notable artists, musicians, scientists and other eminent people.
Here’s a few more links to check out correlates unstructured play with creativity and personal success.
So, if we know unstructured play, and lots of it, is so important, why are most children’s lives so directed for them? Why are they not allowed a lot of time to just play? Who might benefit from children growing up being used to someone else telling them what to do all the time, and from having a large percentage of adults who don’t have strong passions, goals, or the desire to live independent lives?
What do you think?
Photo Credit: Jeffrey
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