The Importance of Play in Children’s Lives

 

Note: This column appeared in the November 9, 2011 print edition of the Barrow Journal.  Almost two years ago I also wrote a column about the importance of playing make-believe and the research on how it teaches self-regulation to children.  You can read that column by clicking here.

Sometimes I’ll get the question: “How’s homeschooling going?” and I get a little taken aback because I feel as if I should answer: “It’s great!  We’re doing reading, math, science, art and going on lots of field trips!” At least, that’s what I think people want to hear.  After all, if my child were in Kindergarten, he would be getting a daily dose of the above.

Truth be told, though we do a little of that stuff, and I’ve written about it in my columns, my main directive for my kids is “Go play.”  Because when I consider what the most important mission of a five- and two-year-old should be, it’s PLAY!

Play is one of the main reasons I am homeschooling in the first place.  I don’t want my children to have to spend their day at school and then have most of their evening hours consumed by doing homework, eating dinner, taking a bath and going to bed early because they have to get up early the next morning to go to school. 

I’m not saying that schoolchildren don’t play, but I do think that play is at a lower priority when we have to stick to schedules and get homework done.  And from what I hear, Kindergarteners are not excluded from these pressures anymore.

The American Academy of Pediatrics wrote a report on “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds.”  I recommend that parents read it.  It issues a concern that a “hurried and pressured lifestyle” may be having ill-effects on our children.

It does not say that all activities or after-school programs are bad for children.  In fact, they have clear benefits.  But it does say “…the balance that needs to be achieved will be different for every child on the basis of the child’s academic needs, temperament, environment, and the family’s needs.”

As I watch my boys grow and my eldest nears his elementary years, I increasingly feel that he needs the right balance between structured activity, academics and playtime.  Playtime should take up a much higher percentage of his time.

In “The Case for Play,” Tom Bartlett describes several researchers attempts to bring old-fashioned play back into children’s lives.

He explains that these researchers believe: “The emphasis on standardized testing, on attempting to constantly monitor, measure, and quantify what students learn, has forced teachers to spend more of the school day engaged in so-called direct instruction and has substantially reduced or eliminated opportunities that children have for exploring, interacting, and learning on their own.”

I want to homeschool for exactly those reasons cited above: so that my children can explore, interact and learn on their own.

In a wonderful New York Times opinion piece titled “Play to Learn,” Susan Engel lists what an ideal classroom daily schedule would entail for a third-grade class.  Besides being immersed in storytelling, reading, discussion, practicing computation and giving the children a chance to devise original experiments (just to name a few), they would also have extended time to play.

She writes, “Research has shown unequivocally that children learn best when they are interested in the material or activity they are learning. Play — from building contraptions to enacting stories to inventing games — can allow children to satisfy their curiosity about the things that interest them in their own way. It can also help them acquire higher-order thinking skills, like generating testable hypotheses, imagining situations from someone else’s perspective and thinking of alternate solutions.”

Reading this makes me very excited about homeschooling because this is the kind of school I want to create.  At home, I can teach my children the basics without drilling them or making them work on assignments they have no interest in.  I can give them hours of leisure time to play, or I can plan some outings and interesting projects that they’ll enjoy.

Reading the latest research on play has renewed my enthusiasm for teaching my son and has reminded me to keep asking him questions, engage him in conversation, and, most importantly, encourage him to create his own make-believe world.

Susan Engel also writes, “Scientists know that children learn best by putting experiences together in new ways. They construct knowledge; they don’t swallow it.”

At five-years-old, spending time and money worrying about a curriculum should not be on my to-do list for my son.  Instead I should be outside toting sticks and playing with him.

How important do you think play is for children…and adults?!

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