Did you know there’s an American Journal of Play? Yes, it’s real! According to author Peter Gray, Ph.D., "since about 1955 ... children's free play has been continually declining, at least partly because adults have exerted ever-increasing control over children's activities.” Not a big surprise, but their authors have documented how the lack of play has led to rising anxiety, depression, and problems of attention and self control.
According to Gray “hovering” parents are part of the problem. "It is hard to find groups of children outdoors at all, and, if you do find them, they are likely to be wearing uniforms and following the directions of coaches while their parents dutifully watch and cheer."
Adding to the problem is our increasing emphasis on schooling and on other adult-directed activities. Preschools and kindergartens have become more academically-oriented and many schools have even eliminated recess. It is not that anyone set out to do away with free play time. But its value has not been recognized.
How does this sound, school hours cut in half, little homework, no standardized tests, 50-minute recess and free lunch? These are a few perks of being a kid in Finland, a country where students rank at or near the top of the Program for International Student Assessment.
How is this possible? According to Linda Darling-Hammond, the co-director of the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, Finnish “curricula are very much focused on critical thinking and problem solving, project-based learning, and learning to learn," she said. "There is a lot of collaboration in the classroom."
Teachers in Finland are required to obtain a three-year master's degree, state-funded, before teaching. These education positions are highly coveted, according to Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish education expert. "It's harder to get into primary school education than a medical program," he said.
Sahlberg’s view on testing was equally eye-opening. "No high-performing nation in the world has been successful using the policies that the United States is using." “Narrowing curricula and reshaping the way teachers and schools are working” has had “so many negative consequences”.
So the answer is clear, more play and less control. Remember when you were a kid? Chances are you spent more time outdoors than your children do now. Consider how this is going to affect their ability in the class-room, because we know they don’t sit still at home!
Consider these five main benefits, as described by Dr. Gray.
1. Play gives children a chance to find and develop a connection to their own self-identified and self-guided interests.
In free play, children have the opportunity to choose their activities, to pursue and elaborate on their interests in a way that can sustain them throughout life, very much the opposite of structured standardized education.
2. It is through play that children first learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self control, and follow rules.
When children direct their own free play, they naturally learn to exert self-control if they want to be accepted and successful in whatever it is they’re doing. As children negotiate their environments through play, they gain a sense of mastery over their world. Gray contends that it is this aspect of play that offers enormous psychological benefits, helping to protect children from anxiety and depression.
3. Children learn to handle their emotions, including anger and fear, during play.
In free play, children inevitably find themselves in both physically and socially challenging situations. They role play, swing, slide, and climb trees ... and "such activities are fun to the degree that they are moderately frightening ... nobody but the child himself or herself knows the right dose."
4. Play helps children make friends and learn to get along with each other as equals.
Social play is a natural means of making friends and learning to treat one another fairly. Since play is voluntary and playmates may abandon the game at any time if they feel uncomfortable, children learn to be aware of their playmates' needs and attempt to meet them in order to maintain the play.
5. Most importantly, play is a source of happiness.
When children are asked about the activities that bring them happiness, they say they are happier when playing with friends than in any other situation. Consider how many hours your children get to actually play each day. Screen time is screen time, school is school time.
Play time is free and wild and crazy, where rules are not the most important consideration. When we as parents realize the major role that free play can take in the development of emotionally healthy children and subsequently adults, we may wish to reassess the priorities ruling our children's lives.
So here are some Tuff Kids Outdoors recommendations for 2015, open your child’s schedule just a little, back away from so many supervised activities, hover less during free play, allow your kids to be kids!