In an age when play is valued less and less, Joan Almon forward to ‘Children at Play’ stands out as a reminder of why play has always been a part of childhood and why we must not stand by and allow it to die out.
The past few years have witnessed a steady decline in children’s spontaneous ability to play. Modern children are accustomed to manufactured toys with defined purposes, television and films that present someone else’s imagination, computers that use other people’s programs, and classes in dance or sports in which someone instructs them in what to do. As a result, today’s children can no longer bring their own strong, creative impulse to play. While a trained teacher can help children regain the world of play, it is a lengthy and difficult process. It would be so much better to keep the spirit of play alive in children in the first place and not let it be damaged, for it is a foundation for physical, social, and mental health.
Why is children’s play declining? One reason is that in the United States and around the world, educators and parents have become increasingly preoccupied with early academics. There is a tremendous push for getting children to read at younger ages, and this spills over into other areas of learning as well. One public school kindergarten teacher told me that in her district the kindergarten curriculum was set by the legislature which demanded twenty minutes each of writing, reading, mathematics, science, social sciences, etc. each morning for children ages four-and-half to six. She then glances over her shoulder, lowered her voice, and said to me, “You know, they don’t allow any time for play, but I break the law every day and let my children play for fifteen minutes.” Similar stories can be told all over the world.
The absence of open-ended play is also a problem for the school child, who used to create games with neighborhood friends, adjusting the rules as needed. Instead, from age five onwards, many children join sports teams and are taught to play according to someone else’s rule. They have little opportunity to exercise their own imagination or creative judgment. One parent who coached soccer for five-years-olds found it painful: “All they really want to do is get out on the field and play with the ball. Instead, they are supposed to be taught rules and skills. What are we doing to our children?” Another unfortunate result was seen by a college sports teacher. He loved baseball and bemoaned the fact that in high school and college, when young people were really ready to play the games, most had lost interest in it. As children they had participated in organized baseball with its stress and focus on winning; by adolescence they were burned out.
Why is play so important and what happens to children when it is eroded? Studies in Germany, Israel and the United States show basically the same results regarding the importance of play: children who engage in creative play in early childhood tend to do better in all spheres of life as they grow older. They excel not only academically but also socially, emotionally, and physically. They tend to be more harmonious and less aggressive, and they show a better understanding of other people.
If children today are not playing as well as earlier children did, does this mean they are suffering in some way? According to research in the United States and Germany, there has been a serious deterioration in children’s health over the past few decades. While the traditional childhood diseases have been nearly eradicated in developed countries, children instead show great increase in sleep and eating disorders, nervous ailments and stress, hyperactivity, and asthma and allergies. The overall decline in children’s health in the United States is staggering. The conditions of modern life are endangering the health of our children, and their declining health goes hand in hand with their declining ability to play.
What do children need for a healthy life? One of the things is a relaxed, rhythmic lifestyle with plenty of time for creative play. They also need to see adults who enjoy their work and engage in it with active will, especially who enjoy their human tasks of cooking, sewing, woodworking and the like. Children love to imitate adults at work, and their imitation is a cornerstone of play. Children also need simple, natural play material out of which they can create their own toys, rather than finished toys that are defined and determine the play. Children need a chance to interact with the world of nature and with human beings, rather than with technological world of television, videos, and computers. One can go on and on with such a list. In general, children thrive with a healthy, simple life, full of loving warmth, protected by secure boundaries and with opportunities to explore the world through play.
The children entering our kindergartens today are a wonderful group. They have a deep awareness of life and a great love of the earth and all that it is on it. As one six-year-old recently said to me from the depths of his being, “I just love the earth, I just love it!” Such children need a healthy upbringing that includes plenty of opportunity for play, so that the love they feel now can ripen and become deeds of service later.
Source: Joan Almon, Alliance for Childhood | Images: Sourced from Google Images - Labelled for noncommercial reuse with modification