By Tamara Guo, M.Ed. Developmental Specialist
In today’s over scheduled and electronic world, I am saddened to see that so many children from toddlers through elementary school lack the ability to engage and entertain themselves without the aid of adults or technology. Young children learn so much through unstructured free play. This is a true skill that should be fostered and encouraged from toddlerhood on upwards.
Our culture has somehow morphed into only valuing academic skills and the participation in organized activities. I constantly have parents of children as young as 18 months to two years of age asking if they should be working on learning to read…what? No! You should be encouraging play skills and social skills! Why?
The Washington Post reported in 2016 that “This lack of play affects emotional development and is thought to be leading the rise of anxiety, depression and other mental disorders in children. Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College and author of “Free to Learn,” wrote on a blog post on Psychology Today, “By depriving children of opportunities to play on their own, away from direct adult supervision and control, we are depriving them of opportunities to learn how to take control of their own lives.” “
In fact experts say that there has been a steady decline in play ever since the mid 50’s. I grew up in the late 60’s and 70’s and play was an integral part of my day as a child from toddler hood to age 13 and beyond. Yes, we watched TV, and played on some sports teams, but more so, we played. And we didn’t own many toys that talked back to us or had lights and music for entertainment…we (gasp) used our imaginations! Kids from my generation came home from school and immediately went outside to play. Snow day? Out in the snow to play. Weekends? Gone dawn to dusk to play. Nowadays I look around the neighborhood and rarely do I see kids alone or in groups simply playing. Most kids are in organized T-ball, dance and soccer by the time they can walk and talk. On snow days, school kids are inside glued to X-Boxes and iPads.
So how can we foster play in today’s screen time obsessed society?
Un-Plug your Kids
Set rules for your child and your entire family that include limits on screen time. Make screen time of any type (TV, video games, iPad, phones) off limits during daily routines such as meal times. Be a good role model! If you are constantly on Pinterest, Facebook or watching Netflix series don’t expect your child to lessen her screen time. Don’t allow video games or tablet or cell phone use behind closed doors in bedrooms for children 12 and under. Don’t use screen time to reward, pacify or put your children to sleep (that will all eventually backfire on you). You can find the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines for screen time use for all age ranges at their website and you may surprised at how little screen time is recommended!
Foster Your Child’s Strengths and Interests
Is your child great at gross motor skills? Encourage active, physical, sports related play. Does your child excel at fine motor tasks? Encourage play using Legos, model building, learning to sew, or arts and crafts. Does your child have a great imagination? Foster make believe play with props, costumes and imaginary friends.
Don’t Over-schedule Your Child
Some parents these days feel pressured to “keep up with the Joneses” so to speak by enrolling their children in organized sports, dance or music lessons from the moment they begin to walk and talk. Organized sports, music and dance are great for kids, don’t get me wrong-just limit how many things your child participates in and gauge their interest level and enthusiasm. So many children go from school to soccer to music lessons, to homework to bed that there is NO time to just PLAY and relax and be a kid! Ask your child periodically if they are enjoying their class/club/sport, if your child is only participating to please YOU, then it’s time reconsider.
Don’t Intervene in or Control Your Child’s Play
Always let your child take the lead in play. Don’t try to dictate or change a child’s play. There is NO wrong way to play, even if you as an adult see it differently. Ask your child “can I play too?”, if they say “no” respect their wishes, but if they say “yes” engage willingly and don’t try to “be the boss” of their play.
Try to Remember What It’s Like to Be a Child Again
Ever hear the quote from George Bernard Shaw, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing!”? That is fundamentally true. Stop and watch a toddler for 15 minutes at the park, playground or the pool. See their abundant and unbridled joy in discovering new things and engaging with their world. Play should always be spontaneous, fun and something we want to do!
Play Fosters All These Important Skills and More
- Problem Solving
- Critical Thinking
- Language Skills
- Social skills with peers such as turn taking and cooperation and group problem solving
- Builds confidence and self esteem
- Strengthens gross & fine motor skills
- Reduces fear
- Fosters imagination
- Inspires your child to explore new ideas and unique ways of doing things
So please, let your children PLAY!!!