I ate lunch today at my daughter’s kindergarten, wonderful and sad because it was our last together after 3 fleeting years until her “graduation” in a few fleeting days. After eating, we went outside and I marveled at her mastery of the monkey bars, a staple of recess. I recall vividly when one rung was a challenge, requiring lots of mulch to dry the hands, sweat, callouses, waiting in line, and not a few stumbles. And practice…
That’s our older daughter, BTW, after lots of practice. Anyway, with all of the important stuff going on in the world, so much information at our fingertips, why would a child spend so much time with monkey bars? Years! They’re hard. They’re frustrating. They’re not connected to the Internet. And they often hurt!
The answer is simple: it’s play.
The dedication required to master monkey bars is a testament to the power of play in a child’s life. Play is how children learn. It is what makes them spring out of bed excited to advance one more rung, maybe try backwards, and then seek new adventures. It is the amazing, renewable resource that inspires them to advance from story time, to sounding out letters, to reading, to writing their own books. It’s how puzzles are solved, block towers rise from a pile, and arcades are built from boxes, which then serendipitously go viral on the Internet and finance a college education.
We grownups should pay attention.
Play is often taken for granted, like losing teeth, invisible friends, and make-believe. But opportunities for vigorous, creative play – the powerful kind fueling invisible friends and make-believe – are increasingly threatened in our society enchanted with technology, academics, entertainment, and too often for children, their intersection. Meanwhile, recent studies have documented anything-but-playful rises in obesity, pre-diabetes, ADHD, and other pediatric epidemics since the 1980s. Though multi-factorial, the cause is clear: how rapidly and dramatically the landscape of childhood has changed, defining what, when, and how kids play.
So what is play? Why does it matter? The word seems less-than-serious, something to do when the productive stuff is finished. But for children (and grownups who strive to emulate them), this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Along with nutrition, sleep, and consistent love, it is a critical element in their lives. Here are some other ways to view it:
Play is a right. Though significant barriers and inequities remain, The United Nations proclaimed it as such in the 1959 Declaration of the Rights of the Child: “The child shall have full opportunity for play and recreation, which should be directed to the same purposes as education; society and the public authorities shall endeavour to promote the enjoyment of this right.”
Play is healthy. Fueled by powerful marketing, we have been led to believe that health and genius are something we can buy for our children: “smart baby” supplements, “educational” videos and apps. What really works, though, is ample opportunity to spend time together and play. Play is a developmental supercharger, offering proven cognitive, physical, social, and emotional benefits, not to mention lifelong memories. Child-driven play helps hone decision-making skills, motivation, self-confidence, and fosters discovery of interests and passions, e.g. animals, drawing, building. Such benefits provide a sturdy foundation, exceeding any volume of memorization or cartoony cheerleading offered by even the savviest flash cards, apps, or video games.
Play lasts (at least) an hour. Surreal as it sounds for those of us recalling childhoods when play was all that we did, the American Academy of Pediatrics advises a minimum of 1 hour of unstructured (i.e. not plugged-in or grownup-defined) play per day. In their words: “all children (should be) afforded ample, unscheduled, independent, nonscreen time to be creative, to reflect, and to decompress. Although parents can certainly monitor play for safety, a large proportion of play should be child driven rather than adult directed.” In a nutshell: let them wander around, investigate their environment, become engrossed, and often just stare out of the window sniffing their blanket. The consequent ability to self-soothe alone (i.e. not decompensate waiting in lines, riding in the car, etc) is worth its weight in Angry Birds.
Play is generic. Not in a bad or cheap way. It’s affordable. It’s accessible. It’s universal. It’s easy to create by regular people with inexpensive, everyday materials. Parents feel tremendous pressure to coordinate fabulous, oft-pricey play experiences for their children. Many parenting books and editorials have been written lamenting the anxieties and madness involved. The most robust experiences, though, tend to be the simplest – plain old play – things like yards, boxes, blocks, books, bugs, and one another. Indeed, intimate time together is by far the most valuable gift a child could ask for – focused, unconditional love and attention. This mode of play also tends to be far less expensive, requires no batteries or power cords, conserves time and fossil fuel shuttling to/from activities, and is far less stressful.
These are the exact experiences advocated in the Baby Unplugged books, by the way.
That said, play is threatened. Despite its place in the childhood hall of fame and countless health benefits, there are increasing barriers to play for today’s children. These include: prevalence of child care where play is assumed but not vigorous, the explosion of screen time and “educational” media (also threatening sleep, another key nutrient), and ever-earlier and more panicked focus on academics. Thus, we ask our kids, even in preschool, “what did you LEARN today,” rather than “what did you PLAY.”
A common counter to calls to revive “old-school,” unplugged play is that children not exposed to technology at an early age will fall behind their peers. This is a fallacy. Computers, gadgets, and the apps that run on them are easier to use every year, and are largely TV equivalents. The major lesson they teach young children is to become dependent on them. Where children are truly at risk of falling behind is in real-world human skills, such as coordination, risk assessment, empathy, the ability to communicate and connect, and paying attention, all learned behaviors requiring practice. Practice fueled by the renewable resource powering mastery of the monkey bars: play.
My prediction: the superstars of tomorrow will be the ones with the dirty knees, callouses, and pen-smudged hands today. Sweet irony here, too: note a partial list of tech titans, including Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Sergey Brin & Larry Page (Google), Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), and Bill Gates (Microsoft), who were low-tech, Montessori children.
Hands-on, minds-on, indeed.
Play is fun. The most important characteristic of all. Sheer fluid, unselfconscious, flow. The magic that forges memories and parents take pictures of. Quoting one more doctor, Dr. Seuss:
“It is fun to have fun, but you have to know how.”
How to learn how? Go play!