I read a lot of books which discuss the idea of play. Many of them are very good. They take seriously the play of children and how it fits into a child's development. Yet not one single book on play that I have read is willing to extend the time that play is important to a child past kindergarten. It's as if every single person thinking about this subject is unaware of the bubble of traditional schooling they live in. It's as if the second a child becomes a first grader, some switch is flipped and play doesn't happen anymore.
This is crazy. Because the truth is, children do not grow out of their need to play. Sure, around adolescence what that play looks like changes, but until that point, imaginative play is still as necessary to a child's development as it is at the age of six. If anything, the play of older children who still know how is more complex and imaginative and ongoing than that of younger children. But I am convinced the reason the experts do not see the need for older to play is because they do not see older children playing. Playing takes time. Playing takes practice. Playing often takes someone else to play and imagine with. Playing takes space.
Instead, starting in elementary school children are overly immersed in academics, not given extended recess, overloaded with homework, and then with what little free time they have, are shuttled to organized sports, lessons, and classes. Of course older children do not play. They don't have time. (Yes, they are 'playing' organized sports, but this is not the kind of play that I mean. There is nothing adult organized about a child's imaginative play.) And if children do have some free time, the lure of the electronics is powerful and mighty.
I contend, though, that older children need to play as much as younger ones, and given the time and space to do so, will play. I have watched my own children play until what many consider to be a very late age to do so. These were long and involved imaginative narratives that were created by multiple children together and would run over the course of months. Everyone knew their part and the story of their play unfolded like a long Russian novel.
Even today, I watched the egalitarian and multi-age nature of play at work. The afternoon was beautiful and we had no where we had to be. Everyone decided they wanted to play outside after lunch to take advantage of the weather. I wanted to as well, and took out some knitting to work on as I supervised the masses. I became aware that an enormous game of pretend was happening around me. It included all six littles (though all were above that arbitrary 6 year old cut-off) and one of the bigger boys. Chalk was used to mark the roadway all the way down the block. Parking spaces were drawn, as were gas stations and other places one would find in a city. K. was the emergency worker, the type depending on the situation. Children rode up and down the block, playing out what happens on the roads. Cars were parked, filled with gas, and had accidents. At one point, Y. parked her scooter in a parking spot, went to play a bit of basketball, and moaned to me upon retrieving her scooter, "Oh man, I got a ticket!" and rode off. All played and all helped to create the play. R. was a part of the action as well, riding her bike up and down the street/sidewalk, often being the one causing accidents. The others accepted this, and worked it into the play so that she was participating even before she could truly participate. The others, understanding her limitations, accepted her for who she is and created a role for her.
We need our children to experience this on a regular basis. Play nurtures the imagination, pushes children into new, more advanced roles, and fosters empathy. Parents, take back your schedules and your children's lives. Give them the gift of free time and unstructured play.