LET THE CHILDREN PLAY – BY ELLIN CURLEY

The title of an article I read in the Washington Post on September 16, 2018, by Katherine Marsh, sets out its primary argument pretty clearly. “ We’ve so over-scheduled our kids that doctors are now prescribing playtime.” The article is subtitled “We idiotically insist that all of their activities be purposeful and structured.”

micromanaging parent

To give some perspective, an American who lived in Brussels for three years, contrasts her child’s school experience in Belgium and America. In the Brussels school, the kids had 50 minutes of recess every day plus a 20-minute mid-morning break. This time was unstructured, free play with minimal teacher supervision. In the Washington, D.C. school, the kids had just 20 minutes of recess. And some American schools only provide fifteen minutes.

By the time the kids get their coats on and get outside, there is almost no time left for relaxed, creative play.

The American Academy of Pediatricians seem so concerned about over structured kids, they released a report emphasizing the developmental importance of free, unsupervised play for kids. It stresses that growth and discovery are more likely to occur in kids when they are not being micro-managed.

The Academy went so far as to suggest that doctors write ‘prescriptions’ for playtime when they see young children during regular checkups.

American parents seem to think that every moment of a child’s life needs to be purposeful and educational. The reason for this may be that parents feel very competitive about their children because of anxiety over their offspring’s economic prospects when they grow up. American parents will apparently brag about their kindergarten child’s reading prowess but be unconcerned that the same child has no clue how to play with other kids, or by herself.

Of course, everyone wants their children to grow up to be motivated, purposeful, successful adults. But parents seem to have lost sight of the fact that to reach that goal, children need to play and imagine and invent activities on their own. That in itself helps kids grow and develop the skills and traits we want them to have. Not everything a child does has to directly lead to future skills or benefits.

“True play is freedom from purpose,” says Katherine Marsh. And this downtime is an important part of every child’s cognitive, social and emotional development.

33 thoughts on “LET THE CHILDREN PLAY – BY ELLIN CURLEY”

    1. Important perspective for parents and grandparents. The helicopter parenting is hopefully going out of style. And kids can be allowed to be kids again.

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  1. I do so agree with you Ellin, can’t kids just be left to be kids sometimes? As a child, I looked forward to the weekend when there would be time to do the things I wanted to do. School could be stressful and it was good to have some freedom from organised activities. Mum mostly left us to our own devices and we were free to play with friends, to go places provided she knew where we were going and when we would be back, or to stay in our rooms and play or read if that’s what we wanted to do. Today’s children don’t seem to do very much on their own at all.

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      1. “Prescriptions for playtime?” –ridiculous. Let the kids play. Let them follow their imagination, real conversation with friends.

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    1. The research is confirming what our moms already knew – children need down time to develop and learn to entertain themselves. I valued my time away from school too. And neither of my kids choose to do more than one or two after school activities a week. They enjoyed unscheduled time to themselves to play with friends, with the dog or on their own. I also spent a lot of time with my kids when they were home, so we got to develop a wonderful relationship. Over scheeduled kids lose out on down time with parents as well as time alone.

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  2. I feel so sorry for these kids. They even have an adult schedule playdates so they can go to a friend’s house and do the supervised play thing. for a certain amount of time. Then mummy says, ‘time for your violin lesson’ and after that you have soccer…” and off they go.
    I ache for those little guys.

    The only time my mother intervened was when the Monopoly game turned into a tear laden shouting match, and her strongest reaction was, “what on EARTH is going ON in here?” When we lived in Mass. school started, incredibly, at 8 AM but we were out by 1, and that gave us an entire afternoon, every day. No one scheduled anything for us except visits to the doctor.

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    1. I don’t think my mother was capable of scheduling out time like that. For one thing, it went against everything she believed in, like freedom … and she had her own activities. She figured if we didn’t need an ambulance when we got home, we were just FINE.

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    2. Your unsupervised time as a child sounds wonderful. My kids had to get to high school by 7:30! So they were exhausted by the time school let out. After school activities sapped their last bit of energy. So on those days, they often needed a nap before they could start their homework! And after school activity days usually meant no down time unless homework was light that day.

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      1. I had to be there by 7:45 and I remember falling asleep standing on the bus with my hand in the strap. I was SO tired, I fell asleep anytime I wasn’t actually doing something. It prepared me for motherhood!

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    1. Good point, Leslie! Many of my career friends are so overscheduled, between work and working out and other activities, not even including shopping and cooking and cleaning and running errands! Adults need time to refresh and renew and just do whatever you want. Since Tom and I retired, our stress levels have gone down so much!

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  3. I saw this and read it as well. I couldn’t agree more! These days, kids have access to ipads, phones, tablets, etc and they have forgotten the art of play as well as imagination. I LOVE THIS and I truly believe it should be the norm here as well!

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    1. The issue of unplugging kids is another topic altogether! But first they need time that they have control over. Then we can talk about what they do with that time. I definately believe in limits on online or tablet/computer activities. Free play is what kids need, preferably with other kids.

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  4. I often hear the expression Helicopter Parenting…. it’s very much what the name suggests! I am also happy to have my son could allowed to still be child for a very long time. My son wasn’t a very good ‘student’; playing with his friends and being outside was more important for him. As a high-achieving person I found it difficult to accept my ‘lazy-bum’ son during his school time but I’m glad to see that my patience (more or less!) allowed him to be child a bit longer. He manages his life beautifully and has become a very responsible and caring man.
    I daily see how parents ‘chase’ their kids from one place to another (pony riding, dancing, football, sport, swimming, etc etc). I also see in France that the 4yr old kids already have to recognise words under a picture. I asked my French friend, who is a teacher ‘When may those children be children?’ – She shook her head and said, SADLY, they can’t…. really…. Isn’t that terribly sad?
    It makes my heart hurt and renders me a bit despondent. A happy child can become a happy adult, a ‘helicoptered’ kid will either break under the early stress or hold on and become a hard/simply result oriented adult.

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  5. Came here via another and another blog – am glad you’re bringing up this subject! Not only are many kids “over-structured” here, but also “over-entertained.!” That suppresses creativity and the ability to choose one’s own path

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        1. Hah, we’re kindred spirits. My high school math and science teachers said the same thing about me. But it was true! As they droned on about formulas and chemical mixes, my mind was far, far away. My English teacher said it was good to be a dreamer if you could write about it. I could!

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  6. This is so true – I think sometimes that young students have trouble behaving in school due to not enough creative unstructured time and just free time to run around outside and have fun! We make them walk down the hallway silently like little soldiers (yes, it’s distracting if kids are talking loudly in the hall outside one’s classroom, and dangerous if they’re running) and I wonder if what they are learning from this is that we don’t trust them. Academics are only one part of what school should be about – there should also be time to expend energy and breathe fresh air, learn how to share and make friends, and time to pursue their creative outlets. We are so afraid of being punished for low test scores that we can’t allow ourselves to “waste” a single minute of the school day. After awhile, this drove me crazy! It’s no wonder so many teachers I know (including myself before I retired) gain weight – food is our stress reliever and if you don’t get to the teachers’ lounge early on “treat” days, there’ll be nothing left! Now kids are gaining weight too – partly because they don’t get enough recess time! Maybe junk food is a stress reliever for them too.

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