Let the children play

An important part of the movement is teaching children themselves how to play. The average 3-year-old can pick up an iPhone and expertly scroll through the menu of apps, but how many 7-year-olds can organize a kickball game with the neighborhood kids?

The lines above hit me as the core of the piece I am linking up as well as pasting below. It is strange that something one would consider common sense needs to be written about as a ‘movement’.

My kids can open up an iPhone and get it going but they still aren’t allowed to play on my PC or the OA’s laptop. Something that usually shocks most people who start off a conversation with how their one year old knows how to switch on their computer. I will admit that at times I get nervous and wonder if I am doing the right thing. The one bit of solace I get is from their school that doesn’t have any computer aided teaching or interaction at this stage, something that most other schools brag about. So clearly I’m in tune with someone! Two points that struck me – One, I don’t believe that they have to get into technology to get a headstart (what is a headstart? and why?). And two I don’t believe – and this is something that struck me after my last post on Beyblades – that kids must do as their peers to have a peaceful childhood. Just because a majority are doing it is no reason to follow. I spent a childhood being part of a minority religion, minority community in a small town in heartland UP and I grew up in the way my family believed, not the way others were rearing their kids. I don’t think I regret it one bit and I am so glad my family stuck to their guns and had us behave/live/learn the way they wanted us to.

And while we’re there, let me share one of my favourite songs – Cat Stevens/ Yusuf Islam singing Where do the children play. This one is for you, Uncle B (Harshika, you know who I mean).

January 5, 2011

Effort to Restore Children’s Play Gains Momentum


SARAH WILSON was speaking proudly the other day when she declared: “My
house is a little messy.”

Ms. Wilson lives in Stroudsburg, Pa., a small town in the Poconos.
Many days, her home is strewn with dress-up clothes, art supplies and
other artifacts from playtime with her two small children, Benjamin,
6, and Laura, 3. “I let them get it messy because that’s what it’s
here for,” she said.

Ms. Wilson has embraced a growing movement to restore the
sometimes-untidy business of play to the lives of children. Her
interest was piqued when she toured her local elementary school last
year, a few months before Benjamin was to enroll in kindergarten. She
still remembered her own kindergarten classroom from 1985: it had a
sandbox, blocks and toys. But this one had a wall of computers and
little desks.

“There’s no imaginative play anymore, no pretend,” Ms. Wilson said with a sigh.

For several years, studies and statistics have been mounting that
suggest the culture of play is vanishing. Children spend far too much
time in front of a screen, educators and parents lament — 7 hours 38
minutes a day on average, according to a survey by the Kaiser Family
Foundation last year. And only one in five children live within
walking distance (a half-mile) of a park or playground, according to a
2010 report by the federal Centers for Disease Control, making them
even less inclined to frolic outdoors.

Behind the numbers is adult behavior as well as children’s: Parents
furiously tapping on their BlackBerrys in the living room, too
stressed by work demands to tolerate noisy games in the background.
Weekends consumed by soccer, lacrosse and other sports leagues, all
organized and directed by parents. The full slate of lessons (chess,
tae kwon do, Chinese, you name it) and homework beginning in the
earliest grades. Add to that parental safety concerns that hinder even
true believers like Ms. Wilson.

“People are scared to let their kids outside, even where I live,” she
said. “If I want my kids to go outside, I have to be with them.”

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a developmental psychologist at Temple University
in Philadelphia, concluded, “Play is just a natural thing that animals
do and humans do, but somehow we’ve driven it out of kids.”

Too little playtime may seem to rank far down on the list of society’s
worries, but the scientists, psychologists, educators and others who
are part of the play movement say that most of the social and
intellectual skills one needs to succeed in life and work are first
developed through childhood play. Children learn to control their
impulses through games like Simon Says, play advocates believe, and
they learn to solve problems, negotiate, think creatively and work as
a team when they dig together in a sandbox or build a fort with sofa
cushions. (The experts define play as a game or activity initiated and
directed by children. So video games don’t count, they say, except
perhaps ones that involve creating something, and neither, really, do
the many educational toys that do things like sing the A B C’s with
the push of a button.)

Much of the movement has focused on the educational value of play, and
efforts to restore recess and unstructured playtime to early childhood
and elementary school curriculums. But advocates are now starting to
reach out to parents, recognizing that for the movement to succeed,
parental attitudes must evolve as well — starting with a willingness
to tolerate a little more unpredictability in children’s schedules and
a little less structure at home. Building that fort, for example,
probably involves disassembling the sofa and emptying the linen
closet. (A sheet makes an excellent roof.)

“I think more than anything, adults are a little fearful of children’s
play,” said Joan Almon, executive director of the Alliance for
Childhood, a nonprofit pro-play group. “Some people have a greater
tolerance for chaos and have developed a hand for gently bringing it
back into order. Others get really nervous about it.” Megan Rosker, a
mother of three (ages 6, 3 and 2) in Redington Shores, Fla., has
learned to embrace the disorder. She set aside the large sunroom in
her home for the children and filled it with blocks, games, crayons,
magazines to cut up and draw in, as well as toys and dress-up clothes.
“I think a big part of free play is having space to do it in, a space
that isn’t ruled over by adults,” she said.

“The other key is not to instruct kids how to play with something,”
she said. “I can’t tell you how many board-game pieces have been
turned into something else. But I let them do it because I figure
their imagination is more valuable than the price of a board game.”

But, Ms. Rosker added, “I won’t claim any of this has been easy for me
or my husband,” noting that her husband used to be “a total neat
freak.” She said they have learned to live with disarray and to take
other difficult steps, like strict limits on screen time.

Ms. Rosker has also campaigned, although unsuccessfully, to bring
recess to her son’s elementary school. But school officials were too
worried about potential injuries, unruliness and valuable time lost
from academic pursuits to sign on to her idea and, she was surprised
to find, many parents were similarly reluctant. “They said: ‘I’m not
going to sign that. I’m sure there is a good reason why this is good
for our kids — our school has good test scores.’ “

To try to reach more parents, a coalition called Play for Tomorrow
this fall staged what amounted to a giant play date in Central Park.
The event, known as the Ultimate Block Party, featured games like I
Spy, mounds of Play-Doh, sidewalk chalk, building blocks, puzzles and
more. The National Science Foundation was closely involved, advising
organizers — and emphasizing to parents — the science and the
educational value behind each of the carefully chosen activities.
Organizers were hoping to attract 10,000 people to the event. They got
more than 50,000.

“We were overwhelmed,” said Roberta Golinkoff, a developmental
psychologist at the University of Delaware and a founder of the event
along with Dr. Hirsh-Pasek. They are now working with other cities —
Toronto, Atlanta, Baltimore and Houston, among them — to stage similar
events, along with making the Central Park gathering an annual one.

The goal, in some ways, is to return to the old days.

“When I was growing up, there was a culture of childhood that children
maintained,” said Jim Hunn, vice president for mass action at KaBOOM,
a nonprofit group that is a leading voice in reducing what it terms
the “play deficit.” He noted that he learned games like Capture the
Flag from other children. To revive that culture, he said: “Parents
have to reassert themselves in this process and teach them how to
play. It’s critical that parents take some ownership and get out and
play with their children.”

But promoting play can be surprisingly challenging to parents. Emily
Paster, a mother of two in River Forest, Ill., a Chicago suburb, tries
to discourage screen time and encourage her children to play
imaginatively. That usually works fine for her 7-year-old daughter,
who is happy to play in her room with her dolls for hours. But her
4-year-old son is a different story, especially in the cold weather
when he’s cooped up.

“If he wants to play, he always wants me to play with him,” Ms. Paster
said. “This child has a million toys. Every kind of train you can
imagine. But he really wants a partner. If I’m meant to get anything
accomplished — dinner, laundry, a phone call — then it’s really

Encouraging brother and sister to play together only goes so far. “It
seems like there’s a ticking time bomb,” Ms. Paster said. “Someone’s
going to decide they’re done before the other one’s ready.” Sometimes,
a video screen is the unwelcome but necessary alternative.

But once they’re used to it, Mr. Hunn said, children will direct their
play themselves — a situation Ms. Almon recalls from her own
childhood. “Our neighborhood gang organized a lot of softball games,”
she said. “There was no adult around. We adjusted the rules as we
needed them. Once the adults are involved it becomes: Here are the
rules, and we have to follow these rules. It still can be a good
activity but stops being play.”

In the vast world of organized children’s sports, a few parent-coaches
are getting that hands-off message. Ms. Almon knows of a soccer coach
who started allowing children to organize their own scrimmages during
practice while he stood silently on the sidelines, and a hockey coach
in Chicago who ends practices by shooing all the adults off the ice
and letting the kids skate as they please.

There are more formal efforts, in addition to the Ultimate Block Party
initiatives. The US Play Coalition, a group of doctors, educators and
parks and recreation officials, plans a conference next month at
Clemson University on the value of outdoor play. KaBOOM has built
1,900 playgrounds across the country, most in low-income
neighborhoods, and in September helped organize “Play Days” in 1,600
communities. It also has added do-it-yourself tools on its Web site to
help parents organize and create neighborhood play spaces themselves.
Another Web site scheduled to start this spring,
LearningResourceNetwork.net, aims to create a broad educational source
for parents and teachers.

“Our first big push will be on play,” said Susan Magsamen, the
executive director of the group.

An important part of the movement is teaching children themselves how
to play. The average 3-year-old can pick up an iPhone and expertly
scroll through the menu of apps, but how many 7-year-olds can organize
a kickball game with the neighborhood kids?

Toward that end, at the Central Park event, parents were given a
75-page “Playbook” outlining research on play and offering children
ideas for playful pursuits — things that generations past did without
prompting and that may evoke in today’s parents feelings of
recognition and nostalgia.

“Climb on the couch with your friends and pretend you are sailing on a
ship to a distant land,” reads one idea. Another, from the section on
construction play: “Lay a toy on the floor and figure out how to build
a bridge going over the toy with blocks.”

“Make paper doll cutouts from old newspapers and magazines,” a third
suggests, “and let your imagination fly!”


46 thoughts on “Let the children play

  1. Even coaching classes and activity sessions does not count! Can we just let them play in whatever way they want…

  2. I will comment later but let me say this hits a spot. I don’t see what the sense of accomplishment is with a toddler playing with an iphone. More later…back to reading!

  3. am relieved….my daughter loves playing with khelna baati and making rotis…and does not know how to operate my touch phone also.

  4. I will tell you from the book you led me to and others that there is no plus. My aunt called me in a panic that someone she knows, their 18 month old knows his numbers from 1-10 in 2 languages because of this iPad app. And she was like “I want to buy her an ipad”. I finally ensured that the gifts she bought were bubbles and Mr. potato head instead. And for all those who talk about TV as education there is real science that shows that under 2 years TV and other such fast moving visuals and sounds have the potential to rewire a child’s brains. Medina’s book says, a child learning from a TV will have less cognitive ability than from a human. This is because the main thing that makes us human is our social relationships – like a happy marriage, social interaction is integral to learning for children. Laptops cannot replace that. Sorry, everytime you write learning/ brain development posts you are going to get word vomit from me. I am neck deep in all of it and I can tell you your school is bang on. if I don’t find one like that here, I will come park myself close to you.

  5. That’s one of my favourite songs. And things have indeed come to a sorry pass if we have to now train our children to play imaginatively:(

  6. And that is why we don’t have a TV since 8 years. My kids are on ships, houseboats and planes (aka our sofas) going to America, Kumarakom and Dubare, because soldiers from Europe are invading Bangalore. 😛 And here I am, parked in front of a screen, wanting to give it all up and go join them on their adventures.

  7. Totally in with the play deal. Except that I don’t know how I am going to find other parents in my neighborhood who are going to send off their kids unsupervised to play something on the streets 😦

    At the other end of the spectrum, I don’t think anyone needs to be proud or ashamed that their toddler can operate an iPhone. It’s a part of the toddler’s learning. They will imitate whatever we do. In fact, we were downright amazed by my 1 year old’s fine motor skills when she operated the phone.

    I guess balance is the name of the game. I can’t completely isolate my kids from the technology they are born into. Some very useful technology I might say. But at the same time, I am continuously shooing her off into the garden so that she can watch birdies and ants, roll around in muck and keep in touch with her wild side 🙂

    • Well yes, that is entirely your call. I find its easy to let kids get sucked into technology and I push it away as much as I can because I know these are the only few years I can do it. The foundation stones. After that they’re on their own.

      You’re right, its neither a matter of shame or pride. but what brought the post on was the sense of pride most people draw from it and the horror of ‘gasp, you don’t let your kids use the computer? they cant? gasp again’

  8. “(what is a headstart? and why?)”

    Sigh – ever a debate between me and my husband. I can’t believe that a kid growing in this generation will ever be non-techno when they are adults. So why push it on them in their early stages? But husband is a gadget freak – so he can’t understand why the kid cannot be exposed to things that he likes.
    But when it came to him considering getting our 3 yr old baby an Ipad – I threw a mean tantrum and put my foot down (If you make my 3 yr old act like an adult – I will act like a 3yr old. pbbbt!)

    • there there… exactly my point. all you guys, you, my brother, all techies. And none of us touched a PC before age 10-12 I think. but you’re not doing too bad 😉 the OA thankfully is in agreement with me on this. I had to talk him into it but when he sees the hours of imaginative play and realises that we never have the complaint many people have – “the kids need to be entertained” he agrees with me. Yes, our kids often want us to join them in some activity. But that is more from a – join in – POV than a “I am bored” POV. so dont worry. stand strong. Call me if you need reinforcements 😉

  9. great point made- yes playtime is getting shorter and shorter day by day but i do agree fully with clueless-balance is key.
    its amazing how technology is taking over everything, including imaginative play.
    i’d rather see my kids mess up my kitchen table with their art paraphernalia than sit huddled in front of a laptop. just need to remind myself to be patient with the mess that gets created.

  10. Love it. My 7 yr old might be the only one in her class without access to the internet – but I figure, I spend enough time on it for the both of us. She prefers outsourcing her info gathering to me while we are under that sofa tent!

  11. I am not sure why your post didn’t show up in my feed today. I was missing reading your writing, so I came over to see some commenting action, but instead, I found a new post. Good to see, of course, but I am wondering how the rss feed messed up…

    • i’ll tell you why. *feeling very stupid*
      the post was scheduled in January sometime. and then something happened and I stopped it just a few minutes before it was meant to go up. Then yesterday I hit publish and realised it wasnt showing on my blog either! it was published with the January date that it was meant to, in the midst of the old posts! so then I changed the date to April and it showed up finally. zimble.

  12. one good thing i like about the apartment complex i live in is the number of kids playing there in the evening. infact nowadays because schools are closed i can see them at any time of the day. cycling, skating, playing cricket and the little ones in general just mucking around. i know i can’t expect anna to have the childhood i had. where we could just walk out and play on the roads but i still hope to let her first few years be as technology free as possible. we never switch on the TV when she’s awake, postpone our work till after bedtime. she’s too little now to protest but i’m scared of the time when she WILL want to watch TV because all her peers do. i just hope by then she’ll have realized that other things are fun too.

  13. Technology for one, and the other is that parents are totally obsessed with planning activities for their kids.. too much micro-managaing in my opinion. Maybe it’s all related to how parenting is now a ‘choice’ – our becoming parents is planned and happens when we feel it’s right.. and once we’re there..we let our kids take complete control and revolve our lives around us (genearlization here of course, but for most part our generation operates that way).. it’s probably why we keep making time for our kids, and never leave them to fend for themselves. If we would, they’d be doing a lot more free play. I’ve made a conscious effort (also product of circumstances – no house help and two young kids)… I’m totally there for their needs – feeding etc.. but playing.. they are mostly left to themselves to figure out .. and believe me, they do much better than I could have ever for them by enrolling them in dozen classes or in front of tv..

    • I think that is great. Whatever be the reason, the results will be great. I have one maid who I need because I am at work. But man, I often don’t have one and I can’t be thankful enough for having reinforced the whole ‘entertain yourself’ code.

    • One thing though, I sometimes feel guilty that I am not joining my son in his games and fun, being an only child currently he kind of looks lonely to me at times…and all he sees is mamma is busy working around the house….how do we handle that mommy guilt bit…uff!

      • he’ll be okay. trust me. better be a little lonely than end up sitting in front of the TV for hours. btw – did you notice who I dedicated the song to? Our favourite uncle 🙂 He sings it beautifully.

  14. You make me want to scrape up what little money I have and get started on that playschool idea, already.
    Too many kids I see who claim to never have sweated it out playing in the afternoon sun, muddied up their hands playing in and with clay/ mud, never climbed a tree and ate a raw mango off the tree. What is with the paranoia?

  15. As someone who grew up as an only child, I loved, treasured the time I had to myself doing my own thing. I never figured what friends meant when they said they were bored, or when over concerned aunties said, poor thing must be bored all the time because she has no company.

    I loved company, i had a host of friends even when i was little, and a larger flock of cousins. But my quiet time, with paint, an empty box, or even just a bucket of water and soap suds was magical.

    I ensure that my kid gets that time as well, i find these quiet times can centre a child. While I do ensure she gets enough time with her friends to be crazy, raucous, and sociable. But the empty moments are when the child gets to explore her own world of thoughts.

    And that time can not include fancy toys, television, computers, and structured time with a task/teacher/etc. But sticks, scraps, stones are treasures

  16. I acquired this no TV theory from you MM. Did some more research and boy, am I glad i did. We watch no TV at home and Yohaan has absolutely no interest in it now. So far!

  17. My daughter who is 5 keeps complaining that she is bored. She cries and troubles us a lot if she is not kept engaged in summer camps, TV and hobby classes. Else she wants me to play with her. How can I “teach” her the unstructured play?

    • I don’t think you need to teach her. But you do need to wean her off you if she is used to being constantly entertained. Does she have paints, colours, paper and a place to unleash her imagination without you worrying about paint on the carpet? That apart, I love giving the kids stuff that requires them to use their hands and brain like Lego or Jodo Straws. I know I have it easy because I have two kids who make it easier on each other. Its not so easy for a single child I suppose. But mine are constantly up to something or the other, creating spaceships out of cartons, flying to the moon on the bed etc. They say you have to be cruel to be kind. When they come to me with cries of boredom I tell them I am busy. Sure enough they lose faith in me and go off to find something to do 😉

      • MM,

        All my daughter’s peers(3 yrs) need an ipad or iphone to be entertained. Just give some crayons and paper/pencils and mine will entertain herself for an hour. I am also seeing lot of pretend play with structures and babies and animals while I am busy, but I was feeling guilty lately thinking may be I am not spending enough time with her. But, thanks to you. I seem to be in the right direction. You have become a reference to me. Thinking of Montessori school for her. Do you have any opinion on that? Thanks!

  18. sometimes, I think the more “sophisticated and urban” we are, the more we lose touch with simple and the obvious! It’s sad, really. And I can’t believe there are parents who judge kids based on their er, ability to operate an iphone, that’s so bleddy pathetic!

    • and I honestly think the sense of pride must be more due to the fact that their clever toddler was able to “figure out” something as opposed to the pride being related to the gadget, I don’t think their joy would be any less if the kids figured out a puzzle or created a clever story, no?

      • well i’d like to think so. But its usually accompanied by a – can your child use the PC? no? You don’t allow them? *Gasp* but how will they get ahead in life?
        I also got a lot of hate from the TV brigade who say that their TV stays on through the day and the child isn’t always glued to it but needs it on to get through the day. now the kids wont eat meals without tv. and they are so proud that the kids can switch on tv. mine is childlocked. simple.

        • Oh how I have been fighting the urge to switch on some bleedy cartoon so that meal time can be disposed off quickly and peacefully. Instead, I remove all distractions so that my child can concentrate on eating. On feeling the texture of the food in her mouth. On knowing whether she is full or not.

          I recently read an article that children are getting obese because they can no longer “hear” their brain saying they are full – because they are so distracted with every thing else. So meal times without TV is actually very healthy in more ways than I imagined!

  19. Hey MM, can you lock the TV so the kids cannot turn it on? That is so cool. I tried locking some channels but you can only lock 10 channels and that is not of much use. I think I am fighting a losing battle here.

    Also, is there any article you could point out, that I can use to educate my 6-year old about the harm caused by TV? He believes everything that is in print. Everywhere the articles have parents as target readers, but I could not find anything for kids.

  20. Unstructured play happens even better in large groups, when we were growing up we had the huge yard of my grandmother’s house and 20 cousins..the rest was all creativity..using the trees, the sand, water, anything that we could improvise with. Guess with people having one or two children, cousins are a depleting breed. My children have only 6 (including themselves) while I had close to 40.

    sorry, but I felt like asking you this, I often see you alluding to growing up in a minority community..if you don’t mind my asking you this, does it make a big difference to the children while growing up? I was wondering whether it is socio economic class that makes for a bigger difference..ofcourse, the difference could be that for generations we have been part of this big city…

  21. Hi MM,

    It is quite a coincidence but this very article was discussed in the monthly parent meeting at my daughter’s playschool. I live in NYC and was surprised that the concerns of parents are so universal, all the parents said they had lots of unstructured play when they were young (minimal toys, running around with other kids, riding a bike in the neighbourhood, climbing trees and just mucking around), parents didn’t directly play with them and they were not expected to do so. But now everybody is just bogged down by the way society and family structures have evolved, peer pressure etc.
    I thought you might be interested in what we discussed:
    The hurried child by David Elkind
    Your child’s growing mind by Jane Healy

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