Protecting Playtime

Playtime. It’s a simple thing, really, but lately I have been learning more and more about the importance of adult-free playtime for kids.

This week, an article by bio-psychologist Peter Gray in “The Independent,” hit home for me about how the lack of true play is affecting our youngest generation.

He writes: “The most important skills that children everywhere must learn in order to live happy, productive, moral lives are skills that cannot be taught in school. Such skills cannot be taught at all. They are learned and practiced by children in play. These include the abilities to think creatively, to get along with other people and cooperate effectively, and to control their own impulses and emotions.”

I live in an area that I super competitive academically. Most of my daughter’s first-grade friends receive extra tutoring or enrichment programs after school and even on the weekends. They can write in cursive better than I can and many can read circles around my daughter.

Sometimes I worry she’s falling behind. I worry I’m not pushing hard enough. But then, I read articles like Gray’s and I feel better. I feel validated that play is important – maybe more important than anything else she is doing at her age.

Gray points out that play encourages not just creativity, but also interpersonal skills. Unlike the soccer leagues where everyone gets to play and no one keeps score because everyone is a winner, informal play teaches that you better not whine or cheat or fail to pull your weight because you won’t be picked to play next time. Kids learn from informal play how to make sure everyone is happy so the game continues, and how to agree on rules as a group.

“When players disagree about how to play, they must negotiate their differences and arrive at compromises. Each player must recognize the capacities and desires of the others, so as not to hurt or offend them in ways that will lead them to quit. Failure to do so would end the game and leave the offender alone, which is powerful punishment for not attending to the others’ wishes and needs,” he writes.

So while soccer teams and ballet classes and all those extra activities are good – so is informal play. I think so many parents think that only scheduled, organized (and expensive) activities are legitimate. Playtime is for parents who don’t care enough to sign up in time or pay for the classes. But playtime has it’s place, and without it, I think kids are going to continue to increase in anxiety, anti-social behaviors and an inability to think outside the box in any meaningful way.

My daughter is doing Odyssey of the Mind, which is an extracurricular group of first-graders that is given a problem that they have to solve by the end of the three months. To get their creative juices flowing, we start with a problem-solving activity each week.

It has been painful to watch these kids try to get out of classroom mode. They are terrified of getting the answer wrong, even though we tell them repeatedly that no answers are rights or wrong. One week, for example, we gave them a paper plate with a slice cut out and told them to think of what it could be. One said a pizza. Another said a pie. One kid said a Pac-Man.

At the end, they all said. “What was the right answer?” We said – again – that there was no right answer, but they pushed and pushed until one kid saw the title of the activity was actually, “Pac-Man.” He declared himself the winner of the activity and the other kids agreed.

They simply couldn’t believe that all the answers were right. It was almost like the idea that there was no wrong answer was unsettling for them. They needed a right and a wrong. An open, creative solution bothered them.

Gray hits it on the head: “We can’t teach creativity, but we can drive it out of people through schooling that centers not on children’s own questions but on questions dictated by an imposed curriculum that operates as if all questions have one right answer and everyone must learn the same things.”

I want my daughter to have more playtime to avoid this death of creativity. The world doesn’t need more kids who can ace tests. It needs more kids who understand people and who can think of new and seemingly impossible solutions to problems.

But since playtime doesn’t happen naturally in this competitive, ambitious world, I think it’s going to take some proactive choices. I have to choose not to register her in a million after-school activities. I have to ignore parents who talk endlessly about their overachieving child. I have to encourage free play and horseplay and even dangerous play. I have to protect playtime.

In short, I have to let my child be a child so she can grow up into the kind of adult this world needs most.

How do you think playtime affects children? Are we making childhood more school-centered than play-centered?

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