Let the children play

Irish Medical News

View Let the children play
Wednesday, 10 June 2009 00:00 | Should childrens’ play really be such hard work?

Tom Hodgkinson, editor of British magazine The Idler shares his parenting wisdom on children’s playtime in his recently published book The Idle Parent.
Recalling the political incorrectness of the late D H Lawrence who famously wrote in 1918 “children should be given to fat old women who can’t be bothered with them… leave the children alone”, Hodgkinson states that parents are over-organising their children’s playtime. Children should be left to fend for themselves as much as possible, he says.

In particular, after-school, adult-supervised activities should be ditched. Children’s free time should, instead, be taken up with helping around the house, playing with cardboard boxes instead of expensive toys, building dens in the back garden, rearing pets, and dancing and singing around the house as much as possible.

These activities will make children into “proud, capable, independent individuals” whose self-reliance will consequently allow parents to “lie in bed for as long as possible” and “drink alcohol without guilt”.

While much of Hodgkinson’s book is farcically irreverent, his arguments against structured play are borne out by research.

A 2006 report on Free play and child development entitled, The Trouble with 21st Century Kids, makes for interesting reading, particularly for parents pressured by the burgeoning trend of multiple after-school activities.

Compiled by University of London Professor of Psychology, Peter Smith and nutritionist Rachel Biggins, the report informs us that excessive amounts of structured play and supervised activities stifle creativity and reduce problem-solving skills.

Frequent free play i.e. unstructured and barely supervised play, helps children to learn better by boosting their concentration and allowing them to take risks that equip them to meet new challenges.

The report points out that while parents are justifiably nervous of allowing their children outside unsupervised in a potentially dangerous environment, in restraining them into the safer environment of structured play, they are exposing them to another type of danger.

Tightly packed timetables of after school activities, rule-driven games such as sports, and sedentary, passive entertainment such as television and video games have led to the situation where many children have forgotten how to play.

In addition, the report states the overload of after school activities is a contributory factor to stress in young children.

Play has a profound influence on a child’s emotional, social, cognitive and physical development, says the report.

The role playing and independent decision making used in freeplay, such as dressing up as favourite storybook characters, or playing hide and seek, helps children become more rounded and balanced individuals, who are better equipped with the essential skills necessary throughout life. In summary, filling a child’s out-of-school-hours with structured play can be damaging.

The report rounds off with a killer punch; “Without play there will be no more great thinkers.” Too much structured activity, including screen-based entertainment, is stopping children thinking for themselves.

For parents stressed by the continual pressure “schlep” of back to back after school activities, this report gives food for thought.

I am reminded here of a brief chat with another mother some time ago in the jam packed mania of a swimming pool dressing room.

The woman whose child was in the same swimming class as mine (and whom I also bumped into at soccer and dancing) informed me that today was the second last lesson of the term and that the other activities were finishing up as well. The relief in her voice was palpable.

Having for the third day of the week, rushed a (reluctant) seven-year-old out the door after school, belted across town in the traffic to be on time for the swimming lesson, the relief was also clear in my voice as I replied: “A welcome break from running and racing.” She then mirrored my own thoughts by commenting: “What are we like? We are only doing this because we think we have to.”

What a relief to know that we don’t have to. Children do not have to be transported to swimming, dancing, music, scouts et al, to develop their talents and turn them into high achievers.

Parents are doing children (and themselves – the tearing around is not good for anyone) a favour by lightening up on the “hyperparenting” and just letting them be. Everyone is happier as a result.

Another of Hodgkinson’s suggestions is that we ignore the mess in the house as a result of all this free play. Undoubtedly, our ongoing obsession with mess free, clinically clean houses has contributed to the demise of free play. Mess is a definite “no-no”.

Much easier, especially on those rainy days, to allow children to bung down in the corner of a clean and tidy room and stare at a screen for hours on end, than have them mess up the house with the debris of vigorous play.

A further report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests that parents should be educated on the benefits of play and while being mindful of safety, the child should play without being directed by the adult.

The report also says “true” toys should be encouraged e.g., dolls, toy soldiers, basic building blocks, cardboard, paper and paints, dress up costumes, etc..

My friend tells a story of how her son reacted when he got a motorised bike for his second birthday. The bike arrived packaged in a massive cardboard box. After cutting open the box, my friend lifted out the bike and presented it to her son.

Instead of jumping for joy at his new gadget, the child promptly hopped into the cardboard box and spent the next hour crawling in and out of the box, emitting whoops of joy, while the fancy bike with all its attendant bells and whistles sat ignored.

For the harried parent who agonises over whether or not they are doing “enough” for their children, there is great comfort in being assured that “less is more” when it comes to keeping their children happy, occupied and independent.