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The value of children’s play

Democratic Voices

Posted: June 17, 2008 8:07 p.m.
Updated: August 18, 2008 5:01 a.m.
Each season awakens within me subtle changes, both psychologically and physically. Summer is no different.

I associate June with the end of school, graduation and the exquisite opportunity to slow down. I read more, work in my garden, entertain friends and occasionally travel - my idea of grown-up play.

As a teacher, I look forward to summer vacation, and although I take classes and prepare for the next year, I try not to overschedule my life. I admit, summer vacation is a luxury for an adult, but my inner clock has never let me forget the joy of it - even the heat and mosquitoes!

The last day of school, report card in hand, my friends and I raced out of our classroom doors, sensing the newfound freedom that was in store for us.

In an era when strict societal codes of conduct permeated our lives, summer vacation provided large swaths of time during which children had an opportunity to run under the radar of adults. We were allowed to play outside until the familiar whistles and calls of our parents beckoned us home each evening.

Although we may have had the good luck to spend a week at camp or take a family vacation, most of my friends and I planned and created our own adventures and activities with only a minimal amount of adult orchestration.

In suburban Illinois, I lived within walking distance of the forest, the community pool, the shopping plaza and the homes of my friends. My first friends lived in the neighborhood, but as I grew older, my circle of childhood relationships widened with each passing year.

We walked or rode our bikes everywhere, and even our mode of transportation transformed into play when we kicked a can back and forth or performed daredevil tricks on our bikes. We survived the road burns when we fell (even without helmets).

Over the years I have come to realize that the play-oriented childhood I experienced helped develop my confidence in social situations. I learned how to make friends, be nice to people who were different from me, and through the give-and-take of childhood play, develop the people skills needed to resolve differences through negotiation and compromise.

In my juvenile and naïve manner, I recognized that some kids could be bullies, some were natural teachers, some were bookworms, some were shy, some were good at games or drawing. But looking back, I think we were all complex beings with strengths and weaknesses.

Through the trials and tribulations of play and the occasional input from all of the neighborhood adults, we managed to sort out the problems and learn through our playful experiences.

As children, my friends and I loved building forts, playing games, staging musical extravaganzas and simply hanging out doing the ridiculous stuff of childhood. My ability to plan activities and see them completed was first experienced through the process of play. If we said that we were bored, the scripted parental response was, "Go play!"

Play is the work of children and one of the most important building blocks of healthy social/emotional, cognitive, and physical development. How unfortunate that in today's rapidly changing landscape of childhood, unstructured play is considered obsolete, unimportant, or simply a waste of time.

Unstructured play should not be equated with screaming, wild children running amuck (although it may occur within the course of play), but rather it becomes a rhythmic, imaginative interaction where children try on different roles and activities in a safe and joyful environment.

However, many children never really learn to play today. In typical middle- and upper-class families, the race is on to "educate" our children as soon as they are out of the womb with programs and activities that are pricey, often developmentally inappropriate and unnecessary.

Sadly, as I walk or drive through our neighborhoods, I don't see children playing outside much. In the Santa Clarita neighborhoods that were once teeming with kids (especially on weekends and summer vacation), many children have slowly retreated into the new age of video/computer/T.V. land, camp, or competitive sports, dance and even chess!

The sad truth is, with so much information available, many parents don't trust themselves when it comes to the development and education of their children, so they believe that every enrichment they can offer their child will make them happier, smarter, or more socially capable, giving them an edge in the great race of life.

Once their children demonstrate a natural talent in one thing, they begin the daily grind of honing their particular skills.

How do children ever learn to think for themselves, learn skills of independence and creativity, if their days are scheduled from dawn to dusk? Obviously, for families who struggle economically or live in neighborhoods that are unsafe, options for their children are drastically reduced.

According to David Elkind, Ph.D., professor emeritus of child development at Tufts University and author of "The Hurried Child," "Miseducation: Preschoolers at Risk" and the "Power of Play," "The decline of children's free, self-initiated play is the result of a perfect storm of technological innovation, rapid social change and economic globalization."

Most of us know that parents today are juggling work and family schedules and that technology has stolen (in my opinion) precious hours from our children. But people are now beginning to be concerned with the reality of globalization and its effects on future career opportunities and employment.

Parents are worried that if their children aren't properly prepared, they will not be competitive in the global market.

Our concern for our children's future and safety is not the question, but how families and society as a whole address it is questionable.

I recognize the above realities of modern life; however, stripping children of their most natural and optimal way of learning about the world and repackaging play into adult-initiated activities is not the answer (however convenient or "educationally" marketed).

According to Elkind, children have lost eight hours per week of free, unstructured, and spontaneous play in the last two decades. How many of you remember saying that recess was your favorite part of the school day? You may be shocked to learn that more than 30,000 schools in the U.S. (many in poor urban areas) have eliminated recess and replaced it with more academic drilling related to the latest standard-based assessments resulting from "No Child Left Behind" - the political remedy of education's woes.

The appropriate education of our children has been the subject of personal and political debate for generations. Offering a free public education to all children is an essential cornerstone of a democratic society, for without the opportunity for all children to develop their potential, how can we expect them to eventually demonstrate their social awareness and responsibilities? It's not too late to reassess our options.

Leigh Hart is a Santa Clarita resident. Her column reflects her own views, not necessarily those of The Signal. "Democratic Voices" appears Tuesdays in The Signal and rotates among several local Democratic activists.


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