"Play" is a topic that most people don't give any thought to. Lots of parents want their kids to "go play" to get them out of their hair (myself included at times!). It's an enjoyable time for kids to wind down and have fun. But I've been uncovering the importance of play recently, and what I have found is profound and eye-opening.
Christine Carter, author of Raising Happiness, points to several insightful studies throughout her book. One I find fascinating is about children's self-control. The initial study was conducted in the 1940's and was replicated in 2001. A series of experiments were performed on children ages 3, 5, and 7 years old. Each task required some degree of focus and self-control, for example, standing still. Researchers discovered that children were only half as likely to be able to control themselves compared to the children studied in the 1940's.
Some people might be tempted to think that the out-dated approach of punishing and spanking kids is why some children have lost the ability to control their own behavior. (You've heard parents say it: "what that kid needs is a good kick in the pants!") To the contrary, Carter states:
"Besides being ineffective over the long term, punishment - physically punitive practices such as spanking as well as threatening behaviors such as yelling, grabbing, and verbal coercion - tends to be damaging to kids. Lots of studies have found associations between harsh parenting and higher rates of defiance, behavior problems, and depression and anxiety...not to mention kids' diminished ability to control their behavior and emotions."
So why is self-control relevant to a discussion about play? Because Carter's research also finds that:
"In addition to helping kids learn to self-regulate, child-led, unstructured play (with or without adults) promotes intellectual, physical, social, and emotional well-being. Unstructured play helps children learn how to work in groups, to share, negotiate, resolve conflicts, regulate their emotions and behavior, and speak up for themselves."
Research shows that children are developing keen skills that they cannot obtain ANY OTHER WAY through spontaneous, child-led play. No amount of structured lessons or academic preparations will substitute for the knowledge children construct on their own during play. In fact, the urgency that some parents feel to give their children an academic "leg up" can be doing them a great disservice - if happiness and success is the intended goal. Carter finds in one study that:
"...children attending academic preschools showed no advantage in reading or math achievement over kids who went to play-based preschools, but they did have higher levels of test anxiety...These academically pushed kids were less creative and had more negative attitudes toward school than did the kids in play-based preschool."
So if we know that play is good for our children, why don't children play as much now as in the past?
There are many factors to take into consideration. Children have far more scheduled activities today. Children are spending more time in child care centers, where regimented activities are the norm, rather than unstructured play. Children don't spend enough time outdoors exploring (read Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods for more on that). And although the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no television watching for children under the age of two, children are still getting too much screen time. Even with the television on as background noise, it still hinders a child's ability to focus during play. Carter sites another study that found that "TV viewing before the age of three can harm language development and attention span later in life." Though some programs are educational and interactive, screen time cuts into creative and unstructured play. Another factor must be the amount of time we spend in vehicles getting from point A to point B. Carter notes that on average, children have about 8 hours per week LESS of play.
30 minutes is the minimum amount of play needed to foster this healthy development. Several hour stretches are better. This allows children to become immersed in play, busy developing the skills they will need as adults. It seems that, much as it is difficult for us to do in these modern times, we must slow down, unplug, and give our children some good old-fashioned time to play.