WHEN ADULTS WATCH CHILDREN PLAY THEY USUALLY HAVE TWO REACTIONS. They look on and say to themselves, “How cute they are,” and think it’s really nice to be able just to engage in aimless fun. Or they try to intervene and
instruct the child on how some toy works or otherwise how to do something. But play for children is really a serious business. Sure, they’re usually having fun but they’re really working. It’s their full-time job.
“Play is more than just fun and games – it is essential for children to reach healthy physical, cognitive, social, and emotional developmental milestones,” declares the introduction to a June 2017 special report on The State of Play in America, the latest in a whole range of works on the subject. “When kids are playing they are involved in a sophisticated scientific and evolutionary process that … provides children with skills they need to interact positively with others, manage emotions, make sense of the world around them, and to go on to be happy and successful adults. In fact, play is so important to child development that the UN High Commission on Human Rights has recognized it as the right of every child.” When a child plays he is improving his cognitive abilities, his communication skills, and his creative ability in addition to developing his social and emotional skills.
The report, prepared by “The Genius of Play”, an arm of the Toy Association, details the remarks of a panel of child care authorities at a forum at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan the previous spring. But it sounds a warning. The actual time children spend at play in the United States is decreasing. Research at the University of Michigan reveals that from 1981 to 1997, there was a 25 percent decline in the amount of time six to eight year olds spend in playing.
This decline, says The State of Play in America, can be traced to a number of factors. Among them are:
- Crowded and overly structured schedules that cram programmed activities into a child’s life. A parent’s desire to give the child a maximum of learning experience in things like dance lessons, gymnastic lessons and music lessons must not crowd out the time a child needs to engage in unlimited types of play, including structured and unstructured play, outdoor play, role play, group play, or solo play. “Kids need time every day to be free to create their own world of play.” There should be time for the parent simply to go to a park with the child, watching her play with others and observing them,
- A competitive parenting culture that stresses supervised and structured activities that the parent believes will advance the child’s success in school,
- Less time for recess in schools as emphasis is increasingly placed on learning for tests,
- The great amount of time children spend in watching television and in concentrating on electronic gadgets.
It’s not just parents who are cutting play time. We reported earlier that as more places in our country realize the importance of early child care and pre-school, there is a temptation to treat it like a regular school where children are “taught”. This has been emphasized in federal and state legislative bodies over the past several years as data showed many children behind in skills like reading and math. But pre-school is different from school. Most early childhood educators emphasize that toddlers and pre-schoolers learn through play, not through formal teaching. Slate.com now reports that two studies detailed in the journal Cognition, one from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one from University of California-Berkeley confirm that when pre-schoolers learn about things more naturally through play, they are more likely to discover new information about a problem and create a new solution. “Curiosity and creativity are hard to measure,” they point out, but in young children spontaneous learning through play “is more fundamental.”
A Parent Can Also Be a Playmate
In the earliest stage of life, the parent is the only playmate the child can really have. Infants are born ready to play and they must have someone to play with. The parent should engage the infant in play, first through eye contact and smiles, then through such small things as clapping hands, talking and singing to the baby, playing peek-a-boo, wiggling, counting and naming his toes and fingers, and whatever else amuses him. Your baby is looking to you for your interaction and your indication of pleasure with him is the beginning of communication with him. Later, when he is a toddler, kitchen toys like plastic cups for stacking, boxes to crawl in and out of, and pots and pans to bang on are often better than expensive toys you can buy. Most important, they must feel safe so at the beginning there should be no rough play, noises that startle him or scary faces that frighten him. All of these actions on your part will set the stage for him to engage in communication, creative thinking, social and cognitive development later on.