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Toddlers to tweens: relearning how to play

Children's play is threatened, say experts who advise that kids – from toddlers to tweens – should be relearning how to play. Roughhousing and fantasy feed development.

By Stephanie HanesCorrespondent / January 22, 2012

Relearning how to play. For toddlers to tween, there should be more roughhousing and fantasy feeding development than screen time and hovering parents, say experts. This article is part of a cover story project in the Jan. 23, 2012 issue of The Christian Science Monitor magazine.

Photo: Tony Avelar/TCSM Illustration: John Kehe/Staff

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Boston

Havely Taylor knows that her two children do not play the way she did when she was growing up.

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When Ms. Taylor was a girl, in a leafy suburb of Birmingham, Ala., she climbed trees, played imaginary games with her friends, and transformed a hammock into a storm-tossed sea vessel. She even whittled bows and arrows from downed branches around the yard and had "wars" with friends – something she admits she'd probably freak out about if her children did it today.

"I mean, you could put an eye out like that," she says with a laugh.

Her children – Ava, age 12, and Henry, 8 – have had a different experience. They live in Baltimore, where Taylor works as an art teacher. Between school, homework, violin lessons, ice-skating, theater, and play dates, there is little time for the sort of freestyle play Taylor remembers. Besides, Taylor says, they live in the city, with a postage stamp of a backyard and the ever-present threat of urban danger.

"I was kind of afraid to let them go out unsupervised in Baltimore...," she says, of how she started down this path with the kids. "I'm really a protective mom. There wasn't much playing outside."

This difference has always bothered her, she says, because she believes that play is critical for children's developing emotions, creativity, and intelligence. But when she learned that her daughter's middle school had done away with recess, and even free time after lunch, she decided to start fighting for play.

"It seemed almost cruel," she says. "Play is important for children – it's something so obvious it's almost hard to articulate. How can you talk about childhood without talking about play? It's almost as if they are trying to get rid of childhood."

Taylor joined a group of parents pressuring the principal to let their children have a recess, citing experts such as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends that all students have at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day. They issued petitions and held meetings. And although the school has not yet agreed to change its curriculum, Taylor says she feels their message is getting more recognition.

She is not alone in her concerns. In recent years, child development experts, parents, and scientists have been sounding an increasingly urgent alarm about the decreasing amount of time that children – and adults, for that matter – spend playing. A combination of social forces, from a No Child Left Behind focus on test scores to the push for children to get ahead with programmed extracurricular activities, leaves less time for the roughhousing, fantasizing, and pretend worlds advocates say are crucial for development.

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