Free, unstructured, child-directed play is vanishing in today’s society. Yet many believe it’s crucial to children’s intellectual and emotional development, and to our survival as an innovative nation that is competitive in the global marketplace.
Last week in Make-Believe: Free Yet Worth A Million, we talked about why free play is good and why it is disappearing.
Let’s get practical now. What if we want our children to be able to play more, but we don’t know where to start? Here are some ideas:
1. Eliminate one after-school activity a week.
Or we could limit each child to one activity per week. Also, we could leave at least one weekend day free of commitments and let the whole family have some downtime.
2. Schedule in free play.
Instead of organized sports, which put a lot of pressure on kids to compete according to adult rules, we could schedule in playground time or an afternoon to just run around climbing trees, making forts in bushes, and searching for roly-polys. If we join up with another parent, it becomes a social event for the adults too.
Stuart Brown, author of Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, claims that, “play deficiencies cause obesity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, childhood depression, classroom ‘behavioral problems involving violence,’ and the ‘inability to interact well with peers.'” (Let the Children Play Some More, New York Times Happy Days Blog)
3. Provide our children with open-ended toys.
Arts and crafts supplies, dress-up clothes and hats, cars and trains, dolls and animals, legos and building sets are just some of the toys that require a child’s essential input to make them come to life. We should steer away from media characters that appear in shows that kids know well. (It’s too tempting for them to fall into repeating scenarios.)
4. Concede a little chaos.
In last month’s New York Times’ article, Effort to Restore Children’s Play Gains Momentum, free play advocate and mother of three, Megan Rosker,
set aside the large sunroom in her home for the children and filled it with blocks, games, crayons, magazines to cut up and draw in, as well as toys and dress-up clothes. ‘”I think a big part of free play is having space to do it in, a space that isn’t ruled over by adults,” she said.”
“The other key is not to instruct kids how to play with something,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many board-game pieces have been turned into something else. But I let them do it because I figure their imagination is more valuable than the price of a board game.”
But, Ms. Rosker added, “I won’t claim any of this has been easy for me or my husband,” noting that her husband used to be “a total neat freak.” She said they have learned to live with disarray and to take other difficult steps, like strict limits on screen time.
5. Show them how it’s done.
Most of us don’t want to make-believe for hours with our kids — and we shouldn’t have to. But we can just get them started by picking up a stuffed animal or a truck and say in an animated voice, “I want my mommy!” or “Our friend the elephant fell in some quicksand. Let’s go save him!”
6. Seriously limit screen time.
Play—the “ability to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving”—is the number one skill necessary to be able to use technology in the future, according to a recent study by MIT researchers. (Healthy Media Choices)
It doesn’t seem possible, but today’s kids spend an average of 7 hours 38 minutes a day in front of screens, according to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation last year.
A half an hour to an hour of screen time a day could be our new goal. With all the activities vying for kids time (including oft-overlooked sleep), TV and video games should be a last resort. As an added reinforcement, we can avoid using screens as entertainment on playdates and reduce the times our children see us in front of screens. (Monkey see, monkey do.)
7. Get them out.
On nice days, we might have to force our children to play outside, even if they claim they don’t want to. If it helps, we could invite friends over, or get some things done ourselves outside, like shoveling snow, raking leaves, weeding, or gardening.
- give them supplies for a snowman, or food colors to dye the snow
- let them have a picnic on their own
- bring out armfuls of trucks or plastic animals, shovels and sleds
- encourage them to use bark and leaves to make houses for fairies
- ask them to see how many dandelions they can find (or icicles, special stones, or pinecones)
- install a simple sandbox in your backyard, or give them buckets to make snowcastles
8. Don’t be afraid.
Meagan Francis, parenting author and blogger at The Happiest Mom, commented on my last post saying, “The one thing that would make the biggest change, I think, is less parental fear.”
Proponents of the Free-Range Kids movement say that the world is actually safer than it was when we were growing up. Reality shows, crime series and news reels just make it seem as if the world is more dangerous.
If we need a pep talk about giving our kids freedom, as well as some pretty horrific stories about how society can make us feel bad about that, check out the Free-Range Kids blog, where the motto is, “How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children Without Going Nuts with Worry.”
9. Talk to other parents.
Breaking away from the allure of illuminated story lines is hard, and to be fully supported, it will require a change in our culture. We can talk to other parents about what we are doing — letting play become contagious like a neighborhood of Victorian houses that goes pastel.
KaBOOM! (It Starts with a Playground)
Children and Nature (Building a Movement to Connect Children and Nature)
U.S. Play Coalition (Value of Play)
Play for Tomorrow (organizer of the Ultimate Block Party, 50,000 attendees in Central Park)
Final thought: It’s Not Just For Kids
After gathering and analyzing thousands of case studies, Stuart Brown found in his book Play that:
“remembering what play is all about and making it part of our daily lives are probably the most important factors in being a fulfilled human being.
The ability to play is critical not only to being happy, but also to sustaining social relationships and being a creative, innovative person.”