Just Let Them Play!

“What can I do to help my child have a great school year?” This is the most common question parents ask me every fall. In fact, my column last week was all about things parents can do to help ensure their child’s success at school. Interestingly, though, the number one thing parents can do for their children to help them grow into lifelong learners is to let them play.

I’ve written before about the benefits of play and recess. Recently, Debbie Rhea, an associate dean of the Harris College of Nursing and Health Sciences, wrote a post that was featured in the Washington Post in which she asserted that the key to increasing achievement in our schools is more playtime. Physiologically, “the brain essentially just falls asleep when we sit for too long. Movement and activity stimulate the neurons that fire in the brain.”

There is a wealth of research documenting the importance of play to healthy child development. The American Academy of Pediatrics released a report in 2012 that states that “play is essential to the social, emotional, cognitive, and physical well-being of children.” While playing, children develop language proficiency, expand problem-solving strategies, and learn critical interpersonal skills.

Often, schools with low academic performance – usually those with very high concentrations of low-income students – have the least amount of recess time. In fact, the AAP report found that 28% of schools with the highest poverty rates had no recess time at all. Although the reasoning may seem sound – we should provide these children with as much academic time as possible – giving kids no opportunity to play actually decreases their ability to learn.

Other countries with high rates of achievement, such as Finland, have put the research into practice. Finnish students play outside for 15 minutes after every 45-minute teaching block. Tim Walker, an American 5th grade teacher, found that this schedule not only kept his students happier, it helped them to stay focused and on-task. After doing his own research, he found that free play – completely unstructured time –helps revitalize kids and develops their social competence.

This summer, Providence PlayCorps sent teams of trained play facilitators to neighborhood parks to encourage children to participate in physically active play. Over the course of the summer, they encouraged kids to take risks and try activities like climbing trees, making their own swings, and building forts. At the same time, play workers helped kids to activate their imaginations and create stories.

Janette Perez, Play Leader and mother, learned to let go of her own inhibitions: “I was very overprotective before I started with PlayCorps and didn't notice how I was inhibiting [my daughter’s] play. I thought I was taking good care of her by being strict and restricting her play. But instead, I was hindering her creativity and stopping her from playing naturally and enjoying her childhood.”

Last month Vox published an article by David Roberts in which he stated, “Childhood is life, not preparation for life.” Roberts points out that, although there is a huge industry benefitting from anxious parents desperate to prepare their children for success, the overwhelming research shows that parenting style actually has very little long-term impact on children. As he says, “Most of your parenting choices pale in significance to who you are, how much money you make, and where you live.”

Yet, as parents, we continue to stress over how best to help our children to succeed. When I advocated for less homework, the former founder and head of a school in Atlanta lamented the fact that “most parents have been conditioned to equate more homework with academic rigor.” Educator Veronica McGinley suggested that the mindset is a leftover from puritan ideals: “Hard work and suffering are valued and anything that smacks of play and enjoyment must be bad.”

As parents, we can encourage our children to play outside, read books, and engage in creative pursuits. Our kids don’t need expensive toys: several cardboard boxes, an old box of crayons, two or three kids and a little imagination can result in a much more exciting afternoon than any video game. And when kids use their imagination, they wonder about things like outer space, oceans, and how to use math skills to make their fort stand up straight.

We can be advocates for play in our kids’ schools, too. Find out how much recess time your child has, and be vocal about your support for play time. Pay attention to your children’s homework, and let the teachers know if you think the assignments aren’t adding value or are too lengthy. If you want your child to be successful, you need to ensure that he or she has time to play every day.

This post also appeared at GoLocalProv.

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