Sunday, July 12, 2015

Formalizing play

I was a teacher before I was a parent. I quit teaching (the first time) when I became pregnant with my firstborn.  Ready to be out of the classroom for awhile, I tutored students and worked in a neonatal unit during the next six years. 

And I planned out activities for my children during the summer.  Looking back, I'm not sure if I did it out of a need to continue teaching, a love of planning, or the fear of my children becoming bored and whining and driving me crazy.  The weekly activities included: exposure to different genres of music; arts and crafts; a trip to the library; swimming; outdoor time/ playground trips; a field trip of some sort; hands-on building activities (Legos, blocks, marble run, snap circuits); watching "Muzzy" language lessons in Spanish; basic reading and math games (some on the computer); and reading time.

Before you start thinking of me as Captain von Trapp, controlling every minute of my children's day, you have to know that I was very loosey-goosey with how all of these plans played out.  There was no set schedule, and activities were ditched if they didn't work or the kids weren't having fun. My only goal was to provide some variety in their week--and to avoid the aforementioned whining.  They still had plenty of free time left to their own devices, to experience being bored and creative on their own terms.

This summer planning only went on for four or five years.  Eventually, my children drifted into their own activities, only occasionally asking me for ideas.  I became the materials-buyer and chauffeur for their self-initiated projects and playdates.

You would think that with all that's been written about overscheduling children and the deleterious effects it has on family cohesiveness, children's sleep schedules, and decline in the enjoyment of learning, we'd be getting better as a society about formalizing children's play time. Instead, I am still seeing parents enrolling their children in activities that fill their every waking moment that's not taken by school.  Most often, it's done in the name of padding the college applications to come.

The effects of losing out on unstructured play time go beyond just loss of sleep and family dinners.  Researchers, college counselors, and hiring personnel are discovering that many young adults have difficulty with navigating the demands of college, critical thinking, making decisions, and forming relationships on their own--and that these effects can be linked to lack of self-directed play.

I recommend reading the resources listed below.  As for my own children, they are now a college senior and high school junior.  Both are successful students, navigate their academic worlds independently, and have personal interests and friends that occupy their free time in ways I couldn't have planned.  They are happy and productive and engaged in their own learning; this teacher-mom couldn't ask for anything more. 


"Over-Scheduling: A Problem for the Child and Family"

"Overscheduled Kids:  How much of a good thing is too much?"

"Overscheduling Your Kids Isn't the Fast Track to Success It Once Was"

Play:  How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul

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