Thursday, November 10, 2011

Just Let the Kids Play!

You've seen them, the hovering parents. They are at the playground, walking their child from the slide to the swing to the monkey bars; prompting, directing, and managing their young one through each activity. They are at school, the parent who wants their child's day scripted, for prior review and input followed by post day evaluation. They are in backyards across our community, taking over their child's fort-building project to do it more effectively and efficiently. The child who had started to build their backyard fort with a vision in mind is resigned to sitting off to the side, watching their parent build the fort, now complete with a watch tower, kitchenette, and sleeping quarters. When the fort is finished, the parent beams and says to their child, "Look at what you built!" The child forces a smile.

I've too often been this parent, trying to control and direct my child's play in order to maximize their childhood experience. I want them to learn, grow, and develop through not allowing them to miss a single, rich opportunity offered by various clubs, programs, sports, and structured quality time with their parents. Unfortunately, instead of fanning the flames of creativity and learning, this approach smothers independence and development.

Free play time is in steep decline throughout our society and the consequences may be more dire than people think. "Since about 1955... Children’s free play has been continually declining, at least partly because adults have exerted ever-increasing control over children's activities," says the author Peter Gray, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology (emeritus) at Boston College (Entin, Esther, “All Work and No Play: Why Your Kids Are More Anxious, Depressed," The, Oct 2011). Free play is described as play that is self-direct and initiated by the child rather than prompted by an adult or through an organized activity. Gray further contends that hovering parents are a significant barrier to free play. "It is hard to find groups of children outdoors at all, and, if you do find them, they are likely [in a structured activity]." He references a 1997 study that showed 6-8 years olds spent 18% more time at school, 145% more time doing school work, and 168% more time shopping with parents when compared to the same group sixteen years earlier. The result is less free time. Further reducing free time, many schools and child care programs have cut recess or free play time to make room for more [structured] programming.

Dr. Gray states 5 main benefits of free play for children, all supporting their developing mental health.

1. Play gives children a chance to find and develop a connection to their own self-identified and self-guided interests.
2. It is through play that children first learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self control, and follow rules.
3. Children learn to handle their emotions, including anger and fear, during play.
4. Play helps children make friends and learn to get along with each other as equals.
5. Most importantly, play is a source of happiness.

Dr. Gray draws a parallel between the loss of free, unstructured play to the significant increase of anxiety and depression among children in the past 60 years. Studies have documents this trend and, in addition, they've shown suicide rates among youth increasing at an alarming rate during the same period. Gray contends that as a society, we should look closely at free play, the core value it has in the emotional and mental health of children, and mitigate the factors that have almost eliminated it from the lives of children today.

My wife is such a blessing to me in this area. She's made me realize that cereal crumbs on the couch, little faces smudged with jelly, and muddy jeans are not only bearable, but things for which we must be thankful. She often reins me in when I want to direct our children's play as well. "Just let them do it their way," She says, "its ok." According to Dr. Gray, it's not just "ok," but rather imperative.

Entin concludes, "The competing needs for childcare, academic and athletic success, and children's safety are compelling. But perhaps parents can begin to identify small changes -- such as openings in the schedule, backing off from quite so many supervised activities, and possibly less hovering on the playground that would start the pendulum returning to the direction of free, imaginative, kid-directed play."

I received a text from my wife today that read, "Don't be annoyed when you get home... house a mess... doing a project w/ the boys, but will be fun." My panic set in as I wondered what this might mean. When I arrived home, the kid's bathroom was awash in brightly colored paint. There were handprints, letters drawn from little fingers, stick-figures, and creative art from the young minds of a 4 and 6 year old. The floor was speckled with drippings of paint. Shirts were smeared with paint erased. What couldn't be erased were the smiles on the faces of our boys as they proudly displayed their handiwork. Their mom had given them a clean slate and freedom to paint their bathroom. And the mess that ensued was beautiful.