Our children will be returning to days of regimented learning when they return to school next week. Unlike previous years, Lela won’t be learning Mandarain, Spanish, theater or knitting. After school, she’ll probably walk home, perhaps with friends from her neighborhood, and play and relax.
During the last twenty years, our kids have been robbed of at least eight hours of leisurely, spontaneous and unstructured play time every week. Compared to children from sixty years ago, it’s fairly obvious that our children’s ability to regulate their own behavior, control their impulses and understand their emotions is much worse. Studies have shown an alarming trend in self-regulation; our five-year-olds behave like 1940’s three-year-olds, and our seven-year-olds have the same emotional capacity as five-year-olds from that same period.
Unstructured recreation, led by children, add to a child’s emotional health, as well as their social, physical and intellectual skills. Unstructured play can teach children to successfully work in groups, as well as how to negotiate, resolve conflicts, share, speak up, and regulate their own behavior and emotions. Another study has revealed that children who attend traditional, academic preschools do not have an educational advantage in reading or math over children who attended preschools that focused on play – but they did have elevated test anxiety, decreased creativity, and more negative feelings about school than children who attended play-based preschools.
By allowing your children to lead their own play, and not questioning the roles that they assume or the structure of their games, we don’t have to worry about dominating their play experiences. Unless your children are being unfriendly, don’t attempt to correct their methods of play. Remove yourself from the immediate situation if you find yourself expressing frustration or disdain for the ways that your children choose to play, and allow your child the free play time. It is important to let them lead, and still spend time doing things that you both enjoy.
In my personal experience, rough-housing with my kids really increases our connection. I tend to skip participating in their make-believe play, because it’s difficult for me to enjoy, and I become bored. History doesn’t show us many examples of parents playing with their children, and even 75% of the world would find it unnatural for a child and parent to play together on the floor. Once your kids reach the age of four or five, it’s completely normal for parents to step back from their children’s play and let them control it for themselves. This is how children learn to get along with their peers, and how to entertain themselves. A kid with an imaginary friend isn’t troubled or crazy; actually, studies have shown that these kids are more apt to interact, laugh and smile in social situations.
By projecting their own personalities and interacting with plush creatures with pretend personalities, kids develop the necessary skills to focus on their relationships with other kids. Pretend play with a group of children can stimulate intellectual and social skills in children, which subsequently helps them in school. 30 minutes is the minimum amount of time that kids should play. It’s even better to let this play last several hours. Instead of using manufactured toys for props, encourage children to substitute common objects in their play, such as sticks for wands, and boxes for houses or cars. It’s unfortunate, but there aren’t many neighborhoods where a child under ten can walk the dog without a parent. We’re not doing what we should as a society by allowing unmoderated play disappear from out children’s lives; we value play less because of academics that take over our children’s lives, but we need to protect and implement play for all of our children.