05/14/2013 11:16 ● Published by Rick McGarry
Tree-Climbing, Firefly-Chasing,Unstructured Play ( Your Kids Need More of It This Summer)
By: Madeline Levine
“It’s too bad that the old-fashioned notion of summer as endless free time—to climb trees, chase fireflies, build a fort in the woods, maybe set up a lemonade stand—has fallen by the wayside,” says Levine, author of the new book Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success. “This is what kids need—they need it far more than they need a high-priced summer camp or some other program aimed at cramming a little bit more learning into their exhausted brains.”
So what, exactly, is it that makes play so valuable? Levine offers the following insights:
- It miniaturizes the world so that kids can deal with it. Play primes children for learning. Toddlers, for instance, love to climb up and down stairs. This allows practice in reading visual cues—i.e., the height of each stair—that plain-old walking doesn’t provide. School-age children play games that have rules, which initiate them into the social institutions they’ll live and work in all their lives.
- It teaches them how to handle stress and conflict. Consider the spats, arguments, and out-and-out fights kids get into when they’re playing with their friends. If they can’t resolve or at least smooth over their disagreements, then the game will grind to a halt—and that’s not good for anyone.
- Solitary play, too, provides plenty of problem-solving practice. Watch a young girl playing with her dollhouse and talking to the dolls: If her “child” steals a cookie from the cookie jar she may try out different ways of handling the situation. Does she scold the child? Bash her over the head? Kick her out of the house?
- It’s a feast for the senses—and the senses are the vehicles for childhood learning. You can explain a concept to children all day and they won’t get it. You can show them in a classroom laboratory, and, sure, they may “get it” on some level. But when they discover it themselves—by doing, not by listening to someone talk—ah, that’s when the light bulb really comes on.
- It gives kids a sense of power in a world in which they are essentially powerless. This is why kids love pretend dragon-slaying so much: They are helpless in the face of real-world “dragons” like parents, teachers, and other authority figures. Try to remember what it felt like to be small and powerless. Much of children’s fiction is on this theme (think Dorothy and her shaking clan before the hidden Wizard of Oz).
- It bridges the gap between imagination and creativity. All children are imaginative, says Levine. Anyone who has ever seen a little girl wearing a white bathrobe and a towel draped over her head pretending she’s getting married or a little boy using a stick he found in the yard to cast wizard spells at the family dog has seen that imagination in action. Self-directed play cultivates that imagination into creativity.
- It teaches us about ourselves. Our sense of self must be shaped internally, not externally. We need to learn what we’re good at and not good at—what we like and don’t like—on our own rather than being told by parents, coaches, and instructors. This is why it’s so important to let our kids try out lots of different activities (art, music, soccer, karate, gymnastics) rather than immersing them full-time in one or two that you prefer. It’s also why they need plenty of time not devoted to any structured activity at all.
Madeline talks more about the benefits of play in the July issue of Livingston Parent Journal.