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.
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Meanwhile, technology and a wide-scale change in toys have shifted what happens when children do engage in leisure activity, in a way many experts say undermines long-term emotional and intellectual abilities. An 8-year-old today, for instance, is more likely to be playing with a toy that has a computer chip, or attending a tightly supervised soccer practice, than making up an imaginary game with friends in the backyard or street.Skip to next paragraph
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But play is making a comeback. Bolstered by a growing body of scientific research detailing the cognitive benefits of different types of play, parents such as Taylor are pressuring school administrations to bring back recess and are fighting against a trend to move standardized testing and increased academic instruction to kindergarten.
Public officials are getting in on the effort. First lady Michelle Obama and US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, for instance, have made a push for playgrounds nationwide. Local politicians from Baltimore to New York have participated in events such as the Ultimate Block Party – a metropolitan-wide play gathering. Meanwhile, business and corporate groups, worried about a future workforce hampered by a lack of creativity and innovation, support the effort.
"It's at a tipping point," says Susan Magsamen, the director of Interdisciplinary Partnerships at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine Brain Science Institute, who has headed numerous child play efforts. "Parents are really anxious and really overextended. Teachers are feeling that way, too."
So when researchers say and can show that "it's OK to not be so scheduled [and] programmed – that time for a child to daydream is a good thing," Ms. Magsamen says, it confirms what families and educators "already knew, deep down, but didn't have the permission to act upon."
But play, it seems, isn't that simple.
Scientists disagree about what sort of play is most important, government is loath to regulate the type of toys and technology that increasingly shape the play experience, and parents still feel pressure to supervise children's play rather than let them go off on their own. (Nearly two-thirds of Americans in a December Monitor TIPP poll, for instance, said it is irresponsible to let children play without supervision; almost as many said studying is more important than play.) And there is still pressure on schools to sacrifice playtime – often categorized as frivolous – in favor of lessons that boost standardized test scores.
"Play is still terribly threatened," says Susan Linn, an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the nonprofit Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. But, she adds, "what is changing is that there's a growing recognition that the erosion of play may be a problem ... we need to do something about."
One could say that the state of play, then, is at a crossroads. What happens to it – how it ends up fitting into American culture, who defines it, what it looks like – will have long-term implications for childhood, say those who study it.
Some go even further: The future of play will define society overall and even determine the future of our species.
"Play is the fundamental equation that makes us human," says Stuart Brown, the founder of the California-based National Institute for Play. "Its absence, in my opinion, is pathology."