Play to learn

Posted by Flux on 

28 April 2024

What’s trending?

Gone are the days when children roamed free with neighbourhood kids of mixed ages after school, only to return home when the sun was setting. Children today don’t have as much freedom to play in their own time as in the past. Carefully shepherded trips to the park, supervised playdates and organised activities such as dance or sport have begun to replace unstructured play. According to a 2005 article in Jama Pediatrics, a peer-reviewed medical journal published by the American Medical Association, between 1981 and 1997 children’s free playtime in the US dropped by an estimated 25%. This change appears to be accompanied by increases in the time children spend in structured activities. Safety issues, parental anxieties about the economic future of their children, as well as the rise in digital technology have changed the landscape in which children can play freely and outdoors. Some experts argue that this drop in unsupervised play correlates with the increase in anxiety and depression in children that has occurred in parallel. A recent study published in the American Journal of Pediatrics found that the decline in independent activity in children was a cause of decline in their mental wellbeing. 

Why is it important?

At play, children learn important life lessons, the ones that cannot necessarily be taught in school. It’s been shown to foster cognitive, physical, social and emotional development. The challenge with much formal education is that learners spend a lot of time studying with little opportunity for play. This play deficit can have long term effects on children’s mental health and resilience. During play, children are responsible for solving their own problems. They learn to negotiate with peers, deal with quarrels among themselves and manage intense, negative emotions such as fear and anger. Tantrums might work with parents, but they never work with playmates. Being told what to do all the time by authority figures or receiving entertainment through screens, also results in children struggling to figure out how to overcome boredom. Children who have little opportunity to play socially are more prone to lack empathy and exhibit narcissistic tendencies. This is particularly problematic for only children. Play strengthens a child’s ability to be creative, a life skill that is important in the world of work. “When every moment of a child’s day is planned, what can get lost is the openness and flexibility for new insights or creativity to arise, or for the imagination to run wild, or for kids to play with everyday objects in unique ways,” says Harvard Research Director on the Pedagogy of Play project, Lynneth Solis. All of these soft skills are crucial for functioning as an adult and navigating the world of work.

What can schools and parents do about it?

In our tightly scheduled world, parents, policymakers and schools can all play a part in fostering more free playtime. Parents can band together to make their neighbourhoods more hospitable for children’s play. For example, neighbouring parents could agree to send their kids outdoors at certain times of the week, with one adult on hand just for safety. Parents are advised to stand back i.e. not hover, and let them explore and experiment. Don’t schedule activities every single day after school and every weekend. Include opportunities for children to be free to decide what they want to do. Part of letting children play is acknowledging that they might get a scrape or bang their knee. Letting them know that you are OK with them taking small risks will likely lead to growing self confidence. Be a role model for your children. If they see you playing – partaking in hobbies, enjoying a rugby match, being creative, being outside – they are more likely to emulate this behaviour. Don’t give in to the cries of children who claim to be bored: they could just be unaccustomed to free time. It’s possible they will pass through that initial discomfort and soon be able to entertain themselves. Schools can also play a role, by limiting homework for example. A second grade teacher from Texas went viral when she sent a note for her kids to pass on to their parents. It read, “Dear Parents, After much research this summer, I am trying something new. Homework will only consist of work that your student did not finish during the school day. There will be no formally assigned homework this year. Research has been unable to prove that homework improves student performance. Rather, I ask that you spend your evenings doing things that are proven to correlate with student success. Eat dinner as a family, read together, play outside, and get your child to bed early. Thanks, Mrs. Brandy Young.” 

By Flux Trends 

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