I have several soapboxes that I climb on occasionally including the one where I rant and rave about the quality of our public schools. Another one of my rants is about how fast our children are forced to grow up and that we do not allow them the opportunity to play, be innocent and just enjoy being children before we force reality upon them. I open my mouth and hear my mother’s voice come out when I complain to my husband that children are not children anymore. When I was young, I would be outside playing from sunup to sundown during the summer with nothing but my friends and our imaginations. In order to play now, children must have the latest and greatest gadgets and electronic games or they are scheduled with activities to the point of having no free time to play. There is nothing wrong with activities, technology or educational toys; however, I believe free play is essential to the development of a child.
I was thrilled to read an article by Erika Christakis and Nicholas Christakis that emphasizes the use of free play to prepare children for school. They discuss how some of the students they work with have trouble listening, socializing, recognizing consequences and even have impulse control issues. The startling revelation is that these students are not in pre-school but are undergraduate students at Harvard. A clinical report published in Pediatrics advised pediatricians of the importance of play in the development of children and gave them advice for promoting play. The report cited that play is essential to the development of a child’s cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being. Play is so important to a child that play is recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right for all children.
Christakis points out that skills-based curricula is sometimes referred to as “drill and kill” because children are more isolated socially simply performing repetitive memorization drills or completing assignments. Skills-based preparation lacks the social interaction found in play-based programs where children can interact with each other learning important skills such as taking turns, solving problems, resolving conflicts, sharing goals and learning they are not the center of the universe. Free play allows children to use their imagination and pretend which in turns help them develop empathy for others – – to see from another viewpoint. This important process of developing empathy helps prepare children for college as much as learning their ABCs because college is more than simply knowing facts and figures. Students that do well in college are emotionally and socially prepared in addition to academically prepared. College requires students to interact with each other, to discuss views, debate issues and work together in groups – – something that a child does not learn from drill-based or skills-based programs.
Free play or pretend play not only develops empathy through acting out other social and emotional roles but it also teaches cooperation with other children. This ability to “play nice and get along” prepares children for a lifetime of situations they must learn to deal with rationally rather than having a temper tantrum. Emotional skills are vital to higher education because without the ability to control impulses and participate in a classroom setting students are unable to achieve their educational goals. Pretend play also builds language skills and vocabulary when adults participate and engage children in play. Pretending to act out a story helps children develop skills that will assist them with reading. Pretend play also plays a very important role in developing abstract thinking skills such as using a prop and pretending it is another object (a brush for a microphone).
It is disturbing that from 1989 to 1999, schools reported a 26% reduction in recess for kindergarten classes. When I think about this, I cannot help remembering the movie “Parenthood” with Steven Martin. His brother-in-law (played by Rick Moranis) is so focused on drilling his pre-school daughter to make her a little genius that he fails to realize that she lacks the social skills to interact with a turtle much less with a human being. I am a strong advocate of more education for our children; however, we do not need to begin educating them in the womb nor do we need to completely remove free-play and all other forms of expression (art class, music class, etc.) from our educational system. We are harming our children and raising a generation of adults that can be the “Jeopardy” champion but who are unable to interact with the rest of the human race.
Christakis, Erika and Nicholas Christakis. “Want to get your kids into college? Let them play” (12/29/10)
“The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds” (PEDIATRICS Volume 119, Number 1, January 2007)
Church, Ellen Booth. “The Importance of Pretend Play”