I am the mom of a toddler. A toddler who I am fairly certain is going to grow up to do amazing things. If you have ever parented a young child, you can probably relate to this sentiment. The world is his oyster, he can do absolutely anything he wants, it’s just up to me to figure out what things to expose him to: what classes, what sports, what people. And when. It needs to be within a certain time frame—not too late but not too early, either. And it needs to be in a way that fosters his love and appreciation for said activity, instead of inducing dread and distaste.
It is now 8:05 am and I’m ready to crawl back under the covers. Surely delaying these life-altering decisions for one more day won’t have eternal negative consequences on his potential.
He can still be the phenomenally successful future adult that I know is hiding inside that little two and a half year old body. President of the United States or CEO of a Fortune 500 company or amazingly talented artist or professional athlete. He’ll still get into a decent college. Have friends. Be happy.
Actually, according to an official statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the best thing I can do for my son right now is just let him play. Use his imagination, figure out things on his own, navigate interactions with other kids. Forcing his involvement in activities that are too structured for him at this age will likely just backfire. He will come to dread those activities when he might have really enjoyed them had he discovered them on his own.
And when he’s ready for school and scheduled activities in a couple of years, he still needs to have plenty of unscheduled time to figure the world out on his own terms. Research has shown that, on average, kids who start kindergarten—or even first grade—behind their peers on basic math and reading skills end up equal to or even ahead of them by the end of the school year.
So why the push for pre-elementary academia? Like most things, it’s probably multifactorial: the marketing that has gone into early childhood preparedness tools, government initiatives and mandates such as “No Child Left Behind,” and the Fear-of-Missing-Out equivalent parents feel when hearing about everyone else’s children’s achievements. But despite our best intentions, are we helping our kids or hurting them?
Kids These Days…
Sadly, this generation of children is showing more difficulty in several areas that are vital to success and happiness. Teachers—who are often expected to “teach to the test”—notice a difference. But with their marching orders coming from above, they are often powerless to change what they recognize to be a serious shortcoming in early education: limited time for play.
Kids who begin formal education at an earlier age often have a paradoxical response to the exposure. Some of the detrimental effects are outlined below.
- Difficulty with socialization. This makes sense, right? Kids who sit in desks and complete worksheets alone have difficulty connecting with others. We see this with sharing, taking turns, etc. Kids tend to figure this stuff out on their own if we will just let them. Now, I’m not saying a preschooler who plays more is always awesome at sharing. That’s crazy talk. But he will most certainly understand the concept and know what he means when he says no!
“In contrast to parent-child relationships in which parents are typically in charge, peer interactions have a relatively even distribution of power. Thus, in play among peers, children must jointly establish the rules of the game, and in doing so they practice the skills of planning, negotiation, and cooperation (White).” Who doesn’t recognize the value of this? That it can’t be taught in a classroom? That there’s no worksheet to teach leadership or working together like experience can?
- Clumsiness. Believe it or not, when your kid jumps off the back of the couch for the thousandth time or runs from one corner of the house to the other (despite you yelling after her to slow down), she is learning! We take it for granted, but there is a certain way the floor feels underneath your feet when you’re walking, running, or jumping. Our nervous system transmits that sensation to our brain, which interprets how hard the next step should be, and at what angle, if we want to slow down, go faster, or avoid hitting something.
We aren’t born with this knowledge, with this experience. We learn it (sometimes by making painful mistakes). And the more we practice, the better we get. It’s no surprise that children who spend less time playing and more time sitting in desks are less graceful. But teachers today are actually noticing the difference: kids fall and run into things more than kids ten or twenty years ago.
- Trouble with problem solving. Kids naturally practice the scientific method when they play. “If I try to put this triangle on its corner, will it stand up? No, it falls down.” “What happens when I throw this ball against the wall? It comes back.” Again, we didn’t always know these things. We learned them. And not because someone told us what would happen.
Kids who play and experiment are more resourceful. When they try, try again, and finally succeed, they feel a sense of accomplishment. Nothing is out of reach. But when a child is told if they are smart or not, based on the fairly arbitrary scales used in schools today, that can feel like a label that’s impossible to shake. The “smart” child will have their world rocked when they finally meet a challenge (and may avoid challenges altogether), while the “dumb” kid will feel like there’s no point in trying.
- Difficulty paying attention. I know when I’ve been sitting at the computer for a couple of hours, my mind starts to wander and I will use any excuse to get up. I need a drink. I have to go to the bathroom. Is that a baby crying?
And I’m a grown adult. Why would we expect our hyper little balls of energy to feel any differently? ADHD is a real diagnosis, I’m not saying it’s not. But are we medicating some children because they can’t achieve our unrealistic expectations for them? Is that helping or hurting them in the long run?
- Increased anxiety and depression. We’ve seen increased rates of psychiatric issues in the younger population. And why not? This is a day in the life of today’s youth: Get up and go to school. Then go to after school activities. Then come home and do homework. Take a break for dinner. More homework. Get ready for bed. Do it all over again.
I don’t know about you, but I need my downtime. For my sanity. And, frankly, for my husband’s sanity. I become a miserable excuse for a human being if I don’t get a reasonable amount of time to “veg out.” Kids need to veg out, too. They need to play. They need to get their energy out so they can use their brains.
- Trouble playing alone. This is a little counterintuitive, I suppose. I chalk it up to the amount of creativity it takes to play alone. You have to have an imagination. You have to have experiences to draw upon. You have to have a frame of reference.
The Only Prescription? More Free Play!
If I haven’t already convinced you of play’s importance by outlining the negative consequences associated with a decrease in playing, then let’s talk about the benefits.
- Cognitive Benefits. Think about the smartest person you know. Unless you know Ken Jennings, the record holder for the longest winning streak on Jeopardy, you’ve probably got someone in mind who has intelligence instead of just knowledge. Someone who has a fresh way of thinking about things, who figures things out and is always trying something new. The most successful businessmen, doctors, researchers, and engineers are people who tackle old problems in new ways. This kid of gift is fostered early on by allowing kids to figure things out on their own—or with friends—instead of jamming it down their throats against their will. Play has been shown to benefit kids by increasing conceptual knowledge, problem-solving, creativity, skills required in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields, language and literacy, and self control.
- Physical Benefits. Free play allows kids to test their physical limits, try new things, and figure out what they’re good at and what they enjoy. It also fosters a love for physical activity in whatever form it may take for that child, resulting in a healthier weight and lifestyle. And who knows, if you just sit back and watch, your kid may just tell you he could be the next Wayne Gretzky.
- Social Benefits. In my opinion, there is no substitute for on-the-job training when it comes to social interactions. Left to their own devices with other kids, children will develop an intuitive understanding of interpersonal interactions. As long as they’re not hanging out with a bunch of a-holes (which, don’t get me wrong, is a legitimate concern), they will learn empathy, kindness, generosity, fairness, among many other traits developed from socialization. These are the kind of characteristics shared by people who change the world.
- Emotional Benefits. Similarly, there is no way to learn how to deal with conflict or disappointment other than doing it. Kids learn emotional regulation and coping skills from dealing with their peers regularly in a variety of scenarios.
Amazingly, your kids will do most of the “work” of play naturally and joyfully, if you’ll let them. There is no play syllabus, no set of national play standards, and no play test at the end of the year. But the benefits—some measurable and some not so much—are undeniable.
All this is not to say there is no role for formal education. Certainly, it needs to be a part of your young child’s life (albeit a small part), and a growing part as they get older. If, for no other reason, that is how the world is at this moment in time. Same with organized sports and activities. But, in my opinion, these things should never completely supplant play and free time in our children’s lives.
There will be enough of that when they’re grown-ups.
Ginsburg, Kenneth R. The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds. Pediatrics. Jan 7, Vol 119:1.
Schweitzer, Kate. How Today’s Preschools Are Actually Harming Your Kids. 9/20/15.
White, Rachel E., Ph.D. The Power of Play: A Research Summary on Play and Learning. Minnesota Children’s Museum.