Today's NY Times says there's a growing movement to support children's play.

We need a movement?

For many years, child developmentalists have demonstrated that activities that are child-initiated, involve interaction between the child and their environment, are open-ended and change in response to the needs and developmental level of the participants support child development.

In other words, play is great for kids.

I would (and will) argue that you can tell this because kids who spend a lot of time in free play behave differently.  You can see it in the way kids behave, by how much they love and engage in the world, by their confidence, by their ability to keep themselves happy and amused on long car trips independently of screens and prefab purchased products, and by how well they get along with peers, friends, parents, and other adults.  In other words, I think play is important because kids who play are happy, get along with others, and are competent.

But, if you want a different argument, check out this blog and video.  It discusses how informal interactions with the environment cause both neurological growth and synaptic pruning.  (It also has a really cute video of a baby.)  On other words, play causes positive changes in brain structure and function.

Why else did you think kids who play were happier and smarter?  Fairy dust? ANY time you see behavioral, cognitive, or emotional change there is an underlying physiological mechanism.  Play fosters brain development.

In any case, the developmental value of play is optimized when it involves playing with others

Piaget - arguably the most influential student of child development of the last century - believed that when kids played together, their disagreements, arguments, and contradictory predictions about what is going to happen challenges them to formulate better models of their world.  Chaos is good.  Arguing is good.  And because kids are on the same level with each other, they argue more vigorously and disagree more enthusiastically than they do when interacting with adults.  They also settle things through argument and experimentation, rather than power asswertion.  This is a good thing,  because formulating ideas and making predictions makes kids think and articulate their beliefs.  This is sometimes called the 'little scientist' model.  And when reality - or a tumbling block tower - proves them wrong, they learn and their mental models get a little better. 


Vygotsky

- the most prominent psychologist in the former Soviet Union and now one of the more influential figures in education - also believed that kids learn best when playing with others.  But he believed that kids learn or develop in the zone of proximal development (the ZPD, for those fond of acronyms).  The ZPD is that area of activity between what you can do yourself and what you can do with someone else.

Take that block tower.  My six year may have been able to get it up to his waist by himself before it started to tumble.  With his older brother - or definitely with my husband - that tower could make it to shoulder or ceiling height before it fell. And then only when a tiny car goes careening into it. 

This isn't just because they are taller than him.  It's because (a) working together, they have extra hands and can work more effectively, but also because (b) the older builders have more experience and can show the 6 year old how to bolster the sides, counter balance the blocks, and flare out the lower walls to compensate for the outward pressure of the weight of a higher tower

Vygotsky argues that kids internalize their social interactions and learn through the experience of working with others.  This, he argues, optimizes development. And adults do this better than other kids because they can help without taking over, providing just enough support and challenge, but not too much.

The Montessori and Waldorf education movements are strongly influenced by these two figures.

So why is play hard on parents? 

Because kids want to play with someone.  And if they don't have a friend available to play with, and they don't have a sibling who wants to play with them right then and there, that means they want to play with YOU.

It's a lot more fun.

How many classic children's books start out with a lone child, bored with their dolls, their books, jump roping in solitary play, or staring at the ceiling.  Then their world suddenly lights up and changes when they find a friend or a sympathetic adult to fool around with?  Think Heidi.  Think The Secret Garden.  Think Harry Potter

Even Calvin had to invent Hobbes.

When you're playing by yourself, EVERYTHING has to come from you.  Yes, it can stretch your imagination.  But you need to do all the inventing yourself.  Solitary play has its charms, but it also requires you to invent new challenges for yourself for play to remain interesting.

Playdo, legos, blocks, and paints are all good solitary toys because the physical challenges provided by the materials introduce unpredictability that would otherwise be introduced by a friend.  

Video games are fun because they do the same thing. 

So are ipod apps.

Reason 1 why letting kids enjoy free play is hard on parents: Parents have to play too

Odds are, if your kid is playing they want YOUR ATTENTION.

If you're got the time, sitting on the floor, playing with dolls, blocks, paper dolls, or making a mural is great.  Fun for your child.  Relaxing for you.  A great bonding experience. 

Playing with your kids doesn't have to mean playing for hours

If you don't have that much time, try the following:

  • Get them started.  Play for 10 minutes.  Get them started on an activity.  When they're engaged, take off for a few minutes.  Stop back and see what they're doing.  Let them show you their world.  Then wander away again.
  • Let them take the lead.  It's play.  The point is for them to run the show.  You're playing WITH them, not for them.
  • Oooh and aaah.  Kids show what they love to the people they care about.  The more they care about you, the more they want to show you what they've done.  And the more you share their experience, ooh and aah, the more they care about you. You can do this from across the room or wandering in and out.  
  • Ask them questions.  Wow, that's really cool!  I love how you've put the tentacles on the knight's head.  What do they do?  Let them explain what they're doing.  Even if they don't know, making up a story is part of the fun.  And again, wandering in and chatting for a minute may get them off and running for another half an hour.  But ENGAGE.  While you're with them, BE with them.
  • Push them a little.  Part of being engaged is asking what comes next.  Can you put a tower on that building? 
  • Take them to the park.  If you take them to a park, odds are there will be other kids there for them to play with.  Let them.  Hang out on a bench.  Enjoy the sun.  Talk to another parent.  Read a book.  I got most of the reading done for my dissertation and most of the thinking done for my post-doc while pushing my son on swings or watching him play in the sandbox.
  • RelaxYou don't have to play all the time.  It isn't a job.  Give yourself a chance.  Have fun.  When you're not having fun any more, go do something else.
  • Make it a habit.  When my eldest was small, I made it a habit of taking him out and doing SOMETHING every single day.  Sometimes it was the park or a walk in the woods or building a snowman.  Sometimes it was going to the grocery store - which can be fun too.  Similarly, I used to make sure we did something fun together - even rolling a ball back and forth for 5 minutes or doing a little bit of origami - every day.  Five minutes here and there, every day, adds up over a childhood.

Play may be natural, but it takes practice.  Vygotsky argued that joint activities with others optimizes development because you internalize those social interactions.  So if you play with your kids, they'll learn to play better by themselves.  You may also find that you get better at - and more interested in - playing too.

Think of it as an investment.

© 2011 Nancy Darling. All Rights Reserved

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