Child's Play

My children have a pattern I notice particularly during holidays when we are off school. They get bored and restless – and then, eventually – they get creative. They’ll wander off to build more forts in the woods, write a puppet show, draw maps, learn a new craft, invent some game to play on the trampoline, or devise some other gainful pursuit. Even though we are not on a school break, we’ve been seeing this happen recently as cold weather, but little snow, has been keeping them inside more than usual.

I’ve long been a believer in allowing children to have plenty of unstructured play time. Kids need time to be kids, time to play outside in the mud or the creek, time for make believe, time to think and read, time to get bored enough to be motivated to invent something new. In their efforts to give their children all the advantages, to “enrich” their lives, parents often pack their children’s lives with sports, art and dance classes, music lessons, and so on. These can be wonderful things, and we’ve done all of them at one time or another. But often these activities get out of hand, causing a family’s life to be centered around the children’s practice schedule rather than ordinary family events like eating dinner and having devotions together. Not only that: overscheduled children may be enriched, but they are also impoverished in other ways.

I heard a radio piece Thursday morning on NPR which gave even more reasons why children need to have plenty of unstructured time to play and build their imaginations. The way children play today is vastly different from how they played in previous times. Howard Chudacoff, a cultural historian at Brown University, has written a book on the history of child’s play. He says prior to the 1950’s or so, children invented their own play “whether it was in the outdoors…or whether it was on a street corner or somebody’s back yard. They improvised their own play; they regulated their play; they made up their own rules.” Now instead, children’s play is centered around specific toys and limited greatly due to structured classes and environments. Add to that the vast amounts of screen time (TV, computer and video games), and time to creatively play is very small for many children.

These changes in play, according to a number of researchers, lead to changes in how children’s brains develop. I was fascinated to hear about the likely connection between time playing make-believe and development of a critical thinking skill called executive function. According to this piece, “Executive function has a number of different elements, but a central one is the ability to self-regulate. Kids with good self-regulation are able to control their emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline.” Other studies show that children’s capacity for self-regulation has significantly diminished over the past decades. Since self-regulation and executive function are predictors of academic success, this is not good news.

So, what does this all have to do with how children play? It seems that when children engage in make-believe and other free play, they use something called private speech. In other words they talk to themselves about what is going on and what is going to happen next. “And this type of self-regulating language…has been shown in many studies to be predictive of executive functions,” according to Laura Berk, an executive function researcher. I hear my little Ben doing this all the time. Ben will lay on his floor for long periods of time, setting up scenes with Playmobile knights or Native Americans and making up little stories about what is going on. I thought it was cute as I listened in on Ben’s stories, but now I know there is actually more happening. As he designs his scenarios he may actually be developing skills that will help him learn to handle his emotions, deal with difficult situations, and interact with others. Check out the NPR article for more details. It makes for fascinating reading.

Here are a few suggestions to help your children play creatively:
1. Don’t hover. Sure, a toddler needs to be watched constantly, but a three-year old can play alone for a while. Preschoolers and up will benefit from what Charlotte Mason called “masterly inactivity” or “a wise passiveness.” Don’t always be guiding their play, but let your children work together to come up with their own ideas for fun.
2. To facilitate imaginative play, chose toys carefully. Always go with toys that are not limited to just one way to play with them. Here are some of our favorites:
o Dress up clothes (We have several large tubs full now)
o Blocks
o Boxes
o Tables, blankets, laundry baskets
o Craft materials of all sorts
o Trees, ponds, creeks – get outdoors!
3. Limit screen time (whatever form it takes at your house – DVDs, videos, TV, computers, game machines)
4. Be careful about overloading your children’s schedules with enriching activities. Sadly, sometimes homeschoolers are the worst offenders here, as their more flexible schedules permit taking on outside activities.

Encourage your children to engage in lots of creative, unstructured, free play. They will have a great time and build thinking and life skills while they play, and you might even enjoy a few quiet moments!
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