Can We Play? (page 2)
Play is essential to positive human development, but kids are playing less and less, says psychologist David Elkind. What can we do to build a new culture of play?
Play is rapidly disappearing from our homes, our schools, and our neighborhoods. Over the last two decades alone, children have lost eight hours of free, unstructured, and spontaneous play a week. More than 30,000 schools in the United States have eliminated recess to make more time for academics. From 1997 to 2003, children's time spent outdoors fell 50 percent, according to a study by Sandra Hofferth at the University of Maryland. Hofferth has also found that the amount of time children spend in organized sports has doubled, and the number of minutes children devote each week to passive leisure, not including watching television, has increased from 30 minutes to more than three hours. It is no surprise, then, that childhood obesity is now considered an epidemic.
But the problem goes well beyond obesity. Decades of research has shown that play is crucial to physical, intellectual, and social-emotional development at all ages. This is especially true of the purest form of play: the unstructured, self-motivated, imaginative, independent kind, where children initiate their own games and even invent their own rules.
In infancy and early childhood, play is the activity through which children learn to recognize colors and shapes, tastes and sounds—the very building blocks of reality. Play also provides pathways to love and social connection. Elementary school children use play to learn mutual respect, friendship, cooperation, and competition. For adolescents, play is a means of exploring possible identities, as well as a way to blow off steam and stay fit. Even adults have the potential to unite play, love, and work, attaining the dynamic, joyful state that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls "flow."
With play on the decline, we risk losing these and many other benefits. For too long, we have treated play as a luxury that kids, as well as adults, could do without. But the time has come for us to recognize why play is worth defending: It is essential to leading a happy and healthy life.
Play and development
Years of research has confirmed the value of play. In early childhood, play helps children develop skills they can not get in any other way. Babbling, for example, is a self-initiated form of play through which infants create the sounds they need to learn the language of their parents. Likewise, children teach themselves to crawl, stand, and walk through repetitious practice play. At the preschool level, children engage in dramatic play and learn who is a leader, who is a follower, who is outgoing, who is shy. They also learn to negotiate their own conflicts.
A 2007 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics documents that play promotes not only behavioral development but brain growth as well. The University of North Carolina's Abecedarian Early Child Intervention program found that children who received an enriched, play-oriented parenting and early childhood program had significantly higher IQ's at age five than did a comparable group of children who were not in the program (105 vs. 85 points).
A large body of research evidence also supports the value and importance of particular types of play. For example, Israeli psychologist Sara Smilansky s classic studies of sociodramatic play, where two or more children participate in shared make believe, demonstrate the value of this play for academic, social, and emotional learning. "Sociodramatic play activates resources that stimulate social and intellectual growth in the child, which in turn affects the child's success in school," concludes Smilansky in a 1990 study that compared American and Israeli children. "For example, problem solving in most school subjects requires a great deal of make believe, visualizing how the Eskimos live, reading stories, imagining a story and writing it down, solving arithmetic problems, and determining what will come next."
Other research illustrates the importance of physical play for children s learning and development. Some of these studies have highlighted the importance of recess. Psychologist Anthony Pellegrini and his colleagues have found that elementary school children become increasingly inattentive in class when recess is delayed. Similarly, studies conducted in French and Canadian elementary schools over a period of four years found that regular physical activity had positive effects on academic performance. Spending one third of the school day in physical education, art, and music improved not only physical fitness, but attitudes toward learning and test scores. These findings echo those from one analysis of 200 studies on the effects of exercise on cognitive functioning, which also suggests that physical activity promotes learning.
In recent years, and most especially since the 2002 passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, we've seen educators, policy makers, and many parents embrace the idea that early academics leads to greater success in life. Yet several studies by Kathy Hirsch-Pasek and colleagues have compared the performance of children attending academic preschools with those attending play-oriented preschools. The results showed no advantage in reading and math achievement for children attending the academic preschools. But there was evidence that those children had higher levels of test anxiety, were less creative, and had more negative attitudes toward school than did the children attending the play preschools.
So if play is that important, why is it disappearing?
Reprinted with the permission of the Greater Good Science Center.
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