Children need to play in order to grow up.
Isn’t it obvious? It should be, but sadly, children’s playtime keeps being cut back. In schools across the U.S., and in plenty of other countries too, youngsters are losing their recess and P.E. time because passing standardized tests is deemed more important than allowing children to play.
Yet, as educators know, learning and playing actually go hand-in-hand.
In his brilliant article, “The play deficit,” Peter Gray argues convincingly that, “If we love our children and want them to thrive, we must allow them more time and opportunity to play, not less.”
He goes on to say that, “At play, children learn the most important of life’s lessons, the ones that cannot be taught in school. To learn these lessons well, children need lots of play — lots and lots of it, without interference from adults.”
Why Do Kids Need to Play?
1. Creative Development: Albert Einstein is said to have hated school, but referred to his achievements in theoretical physics as “combinatorial play.” By playing and exploring in their own ways, children have the opportunity to develop their creativity. Adult involvement — for example, through adult-directed sports or when parents sign their kids up for classes or become too fearful of letting their kids go out to play with other kids – hampers such creative development.
2. Mental Health: Gray argues in his article that over the same decades that children’s play has been declining, childhood mental disorders have been increasing. He shows that there has been a continuous increase in anxiety and depression in young people over the decades. He further says that: “the rates of what today would be diagnosed as generalized anxiety disorder and major depression are five to eight times what they were in the 1950s. Over the same period, the suicide rate for young people aged 15 to 24 has more than doubled, and that for children under age 15 [it] has quadrupled.”
3. Social Development: Children need to play together in order to sort out their issues and learn how to get along with each other. Several studies reveal that as play amongst children has declined, so has the ability to empathize with others (i.e., to see things from another person’s point of view and to experience what that person experiences). Instead of being directed by adults, children need to learn for themselves the skills of leadership, negotiation and compromise.
4. Cognitive Development: The pace of play is self-regulated and thus can increase attention span and stimulate the senses. Any teacher knows that young people do not do well if they are forced to sit still for long periods of time. They need to get up and move around to keep that oxygen flowing. But instead, the movement in education is to push for ever more standardized tests and all the preparation that they require.
5. Physical Development: Playing outside may keep our youngsters in better shape and help in the fight against obesity. Seventeen percent of U.S. children between the ages of 2 and 19 are obese, so this is a huge issue. Try watching a group of children in a wooded area as they run, jump and climb over things. They are exercising and staying fit, and it all comes naturally to them. But are our schools listening? No, 40 percent of elementary schools across the country have either cut back on recess or cut it out altogether.
Children are stuck between a rock and a hard place: either pressured by schools to pass tests or over-protected by helicopter parents who won’t let go.
Just let them play!