The Importance of Being Playful!
By Katie Wetherbee
As winter vacation nears, children anxiously await a break from school. Snowboarding, seeing friends and playing with new toys comprise a child’s dream vacation. This is an ideal time to take a break from academics, enjoy some family time and celebrate traditions. What parents might not realize, however, is that downtime, balanced with school and structured activities, is crucial to their children’s social, intellectual and moral development.
The Link to Learning
Play experiences promote successful learning. In a position paper by the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists, researchers said “Children can remember more, focus better and regulate their own behavior better in play than in any other context.” Kenston Schools Psychologist Joan Benedejcic agrees. “Play is important for children on many levels. When children play with blocks or legos, they’re learning about spatial arrays, how pieces and parts go together. They may organize their toys by color, size or shape. These are building blocks for development of language and concepts important for reading, writing and math skills.” Pediatrician Dr. Andrew Hertz adds, “Play allows the brain to explore problem solving in ways that structured learning cannot.”
For older children, playing allows them to work on a variety of higher-level thinking skills. Mary Jo Weber, chairperson of the Chagrin Falls Peaceful Schools committee gives this example: “Running a lemonade stand teaches children to run a business, market a product, set up jobs, work as a group, recognize individual talents, work through conflict, see the fruits of their labors, and divide the proceeds.” These kinds of experiences prepare children for higher level academic experiences, and eventually, for work.
The opportunity to pursue hobbies in an unstructured way also affects motivation for learning. Psychologist Dr. Jane Hellwig explains “Young people need to explore the world…I think of kids who do crafts or have hobbies. None of those are possible if children don’t have ‘free time.’” Hellwig emphasizes, “Research about motivation says we can diminish motivation by providing external rewards for tasks that are intrinsically rewarding. So if we give a grade to a child for a task the child finds rewarding, we may actually reduce the enjoyment of that task.”
Chagrin Falls Middle School Principal Eileen Parmelee observes, “Kids get resentful when there is always an expectation for a result: ‘Will I get a good grade? Am I getting better at this? Will I make the team?’” She stresses the need for children to be creative and explore interests without the pressure of being evaluated.
Recreation also allows families to connect with each other. Hertz emphasizes the importance of family connection. “A child who has an involved family, and I do not mean the parent who attends each sporting event, I mean a parent who understands what the child is experiencing with friends, is less likely to get involved with drugs and gangs.” In addition, children who feel connected with their families tend to be more secure learners because they feel equipped to try new skills.
In addition to fostering a sense of connection, family play is an excellent way for parents to impart values. Opportunities for life lessons exist in many aspects of recreation. When enjoying a Monopoly game, for example, families can discuss managing money in a fun, non-threatening way. If children assist with baking, they can learn generosity by sharing the product with a neighbor.
Families who play together build a rich set of memories. Recreational experiences need not be expensive or elaborate. One family enjoys hikes in the Metroparks every autumn, while another family has a camp out every Friday in their living room. These kinds of simple experiences can help to build a strong sense of connection.
Finally, parents should know that when they play with their children, they invite opportunities for conversation that can enrich and educate. When children sense they have unhurried, focused time with a parent, they feel able to ask questions and share information they might not otherwise discuss. These instances are seeds for memorable, teachable moments with children of any age.
The Social Scene
The opportunity to play or relax also affects children’s social skills. Children learn to follow rules, display good sportsmanship, and work toward a common goal. “Through play,” says Child Psychiatrist Dr. Stephen Grcevich, “kids learn important lessons in getting along with others as well as the necessary skills to make and maintain healthy relationships with others.” With an increasing focus on group work in academic and work settings, children need plenty of practice with social skills. Benedejcic comments, “Play is a way to foster perspective taking.” Seeing another’s point of view is an important life skill that will enhance the ability to relate to others.
Play groups are appropriate for young children, but the need for unstructured social play is no less important for middle and high school students. Pre-teens’ and teenagers’ “play” is often based around events like dances or football games. Parmelee explains that adolescents are “social creatures” and need time with friends.
Grcevich elaborates, “I think there’s clearly a correlation between the absence of unstructured time in the lives of our kids and the need so many teens have for help in acquiring age-appropriate social skills.” Therefore, ensuring enough unstructured time is critical to a child’s social development. “If kids only interact in highly structured activities orchestrated by adults,” Grcevich continues, “they’re at risk of not acquiring the skills necessary to negotiate conflicts and disagreements with others.”
The “Empty Tank Syndrome”
Experts agree that over-scheduling children comes at a great cost. Parmelee notices what she calls “the empty tank syndrome:” students can only produce good work when they have the energy and emotional reserves available. Children who don’t have opportunities to relax and play are at risk for depression, obesity and isolation. Hellwig adds, “We know from research that when treating mild to moderate depression, regular exercise can be as effective as antidepressants. So, making time to ‘move around’ is very important, especially for young women for whom the major mental health risks are eating disorders and depression.” Parents can help by maintaining a balance between their children’s structured time and play, and by modeling balance in their own schedules.
As families approach the holiday season and the New Year, they can embrace unstructured time not only for what it provides in terms of development and enrichment, but also because it nurtures both individuals and families. Hellwig concludes, “Children of all ages (and that includes adults!) need time for play on a regular basis. We need to have things we can do outside of the structure of school (and work) and things we can just enjoy!”