Last night my husband and I attended the lecture “Playful Learning” by Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a child psychologist and author of Einstein Never Used Flash Cards, at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. This lecture interested me because I have read of the importance of playtime for children and, but I specifically wanted to know:
- Should children’s play be free or planned?
- For what age is play especially important?
Personally, I have observed a growing trend away from playtime for children. More and more media has become more and more consuming, and more and more children are in more and more controlled environments.
What about allowing a child to run outside creating an imaginary castle out of a cluster of trees? What about encouraging a child to tie a cape (aka a towel) to their back and fly through the air as Superman? What about building a city out of blocks or playing freeze tag or having Barbie set Ken straight in their Dream House?
These are the kinds of things kids do when given the opportunity. But it seems these opportunities are being lost. Fewer schools are giving time for simple play.
When my husband and I were still deciding how to educate our children, this was one of the areas that concerned me. Private schools, especially, seem determined to pack as much “education” into children’s waking hours with hours of homework in elementary grades.
In fact, Hirsh-Pasek showed that in 1981 children spent 40% of their time in play. That percentage dropped to 25% in 1997. “In the last 20 years, children have lost eight hours of free play per week,” she said.
Why is this important? Research shows that there is a correlation between play in young children and better skills in reading, writing and math later in life. Play also allows children to learn social skills like emotional control, sharing and empathy.
Both free play and guided play are important. Free play is just that, kids have to figure out how to play creatively themselves. Guided play is also child-initiated but parents or adults are on hand to ask probing questions and make suggestions.
One example that Hirsh-Pasek gave was a study in which children were given three everyday items. One group was told, “This is how these items are used.” Another group was told, “Use them however you want.” And the third group was given the items and asked questions like, “What else could you do with those things?”
Then the groups were given a problem to solve with the items. The first group solved the problem in the most typical way. The participants never thought creatively about what the items could do. They merely recited what they have been told. The next group thought creatively but the results were limited. The third group was the most creative as the participants had been nudged to keep thinking, keep creating and give it one more try.
This kind of activity teaches children to become creative problem solvers. They become the inventors, designers, engineers and creators of the future.
I left the lecture encouraged that my inner compass was on track. Play is important. In fact, it is important for all of us at every age. It is what allows all of us to reason, grow, assimilate, celebrate, explore and just have fun with the world around us.
So the next time your student says, “But mom, I just want play!” That may be exactly what he needs to do.