Children and play

I've been able to begin to catch up on the stacks of books I have started, but never finished, so you can expect quite a few posts as I finish them off. I think I've counted at least 7 different books that I've started. I don't usually have more than one book going at a time, so this is unusual. They began to pile up over the past few months and I'm taking it as a good sign that I'm beginning to finish them instead of just adding to my started stack.

The book I finished over the weekend (and was the impetus for my science experiment on Monday) was Einstein Never Used Flashcards: how our children really learn -- and why they need to play more and memorize less by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff. It's an older book, having been written in 2003, but I didn't know about it until one of the people I interviewed for an article I wrote about play told me about it.

I enjoyed it, though I do have a few quibbles. How can one not enjoy a book which confirms ones own pet theories? And not only confirms them, but backs them up with actual scientific studies of a much larger sampling than just my own children. Outside validation is always extremely satisfying.

I have proposed all along that children need just a few things for them to develop appropriately. (These are my thoughts now, though for the most part they are substantiated by the book.) They need a safe, caring family, exposure to books and language, and free time to play. Anything more than that either isn't really necessary or can be actually detrimental.

First off, emotional intelligence and health is huge. If you cannot interact well with other people or cannot control your impulses, then it doesn't really matter how intelligent you are. This is why, as we help some of our children heal from their past wounds, we only expect as much academic work as they can handle at the time. It is hard to learn self-control, power over frustration, and healthy attachment. Sometimes that's all the brain has room for. This is why, often during the middle school years, academics takes a back-burner in our home. It is a tumultuous time of life and the changes the body and brain are going through are huge. Sometimes helping a child navigate all those changes and come out of it with a continuing attachment with parents and siblings and a growing sense of self is far more important than fractions or grammar. These are the life skills which really matter and will dictate all future interactions. Academics can be caught up easily if a child can emotionally handle it.

Next, never underestimate the power of just reading and conversing with your child. Pre-literacy skills take a long time to develop, starting with a child just being exposed to print... seeing it on signs, on boxes, in books, watching adults interact with print. The book actually shared several very interesting studies on how much about print very small children have already learned. I was particularly fascinated by the results since they lined up exactly with what I had already noticed in my own children and their awareness. As an aside, even though H. came to us with some pretty severe deficits, because she is older, she is moving through the stages very quickly. She has been noticing more and more that so much of her world has writing on it and she has begun to realize that she can try to sound these words out. Plus, just yesterday, she made the connection that if she knows the sound a letter makes, she can try to put the sounds together herself to spell words and happily showed me that she had spelled 'nose' and 'lips'. These are huge, huge milestones.

It's not only reading to children, but actually talking with (as opposed to at) your children has huge benefits. It develops relationships, vocabulary, social and thinking skills. As an example, H.'s Mandarin abilities seemed to have topped out at about a 5 year old level. (More than one translator made the same estimation.) But she was only ever talked at, not to. There was no give and take to her conversations and usually involved just taking orders. And her language skills suffered for it. The best book I know about the value of children having conversation with adults is Endangered Minds by Jane Healy.

And lastly, we come to the big one. Play. This is not adult-engineered, directed play, but child-led free play. It's building with blocks or Legos. It's dressing up and role playing. It's doll houses and stuffed animals and dolls and tents under the dining room table. It's making forts in the backyard and staring at a bug for an hour. It's filling up the sink and getting the bathroom wet in the process. It's taking a toy and playing with it in ways that the creators never imagined. It's doing nothing. It's playing alone. It's playing with friends. It's what adults sometimes call wasting time. It can look as though it has no value at all. Yet it is the way children learn about and learn to make sense of the world around them.

Over and over and over again the studies done on play show that it is a much bigger deal than people generally give it credit for. Piaget was right when he said, "Play is the answer to how anything new comes about." I have watched a lot of children play for many years now. Each child plays a little differently from another, yet they are all doing the same type of work. They are using play to try out things, to practice being adults, to experiment, or to work through something that was scary. Often their play involves whatever new thing they have learned. Sometimes I will set-up a scenario for them, but then let them take it over and continue on. But play does take time, it can't be scheduled in half hour increments every other day.

Which leads me to my assertion that adding too much to a child's world can be detrimental. First, if you push things too early, before the brain is ready, you just might end up with maladaptive connections. Why push reading on a young child before their brain is ready for it? Yes, the child might end up learning to read, but is it a struggle? Do they enjoy it? Why not wait until it comes more easily and naturally? (And as a piano teacher, I find myself turning too-young students away with the same argument.) Second, all those classes and sports and activities? Yes, they can be good in small doses. But at best I really don't think they are going to make your child be a better adult than they would otherwise. At worst, too many of them can have some rather dire consequences. A child who never has free time does not learn to fall back on his own reserves. He is never responsible for his own entertainment and it teaches him that he needs to be entertained by others. It teaches passivity. And a child who never has free time never has time to play. Never has time to work out for herself all of the things she sees in the world around her. Never gets to practice new skills in a safe environment. Never gets to use her imagination fully. Never rises to her full intellectual potential.

I know that many parents over-schedule their children out of fear. Fear that they will be left behind in this highly competitive world. But I suggest that by not allowing their children time to play, to have free time, to be children, they are accomplishing exactly what they are afraid of.

Love, language, and play. It's really very simple.
Completely not related, though it's about a play (the noun) rather than play (the verb). Take a look at the trailer that was made for the show M. is in this weekend and next.


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