School has become an abnormal setting for children. Instead of admitting that, we say children are abnormal and that we need to correct the children. Of course as an unschooler I would certainly like to believe that. Whether it is really true or not is in the eye of the beholder. I am not here to argue about the merits or demerits of school but to point out that play is an important part of a child’s development. Most of what I am about to say in this post is pretty much what is covered in the excellent TED talk linked below. You can skip this article if you watch that video.
Why is play important?
According to the author of the TED talk, play is how young mammals practice skill. Play is how they develop fit bodies, learn crucial skills to survive. Not only that, but they also learn how to cooperate with one another and play together without losing their temper. Experiments with play deprived mammals have shown that when they are put in an environment with other animals of the same species, they are unable to cope well. They show aggression or freeze up and not be able to interact well.
It is observed that the mammals with the largest brain, namely humans play way more that other animals in an unrestricted environment. Children of hunter gatherer society (who don’t go to school) supposedly spend dawn to dusk playing together. These include teenage children and that is how they learn skills and not by going to school. Children from these cultures are among the happiest, cooperative and resilient ones.
What is free play?
Some people confuse play as any activity not related to school or education. So taking a kid to soccer practice or swimming classes is considered play. The author does not consider that to be real play if it is not self chosen and self directed by the kids. If you have an adult running it (a coach) then it is not free play. Children learn by playing and observing their surroundings in a natural setting. Not an artificial setting created by adults in the form of school or training sessions.
What is stopping free play?
You know what I am about to say don’t you? We as parents are the ones who are stopping free play. With schools playing (pun intended) a primary role in the life of children. Schools back in the day, had a lot of free time. Homework was unheard of for young kids. I don’t remember doing home work until after 3rd grade. Now I see schools giving homework to preschoolers. How absurd.
Weekends used to be just a lot of free time. We had some minor homework once in a while but it is nothing compared to how schools treat children now-a-days. I see parents taking children to football classes, tennis classes and other adult supervised so called playing activities leaving no free time in the weekends.
Summer holidays for me meant a lot of free time. Cleaning up bookshelves, reading lots of story books, playing with friends was all I remember of summer holidays. Now kids have summer classes, summer activities, and structured vacation. Nothing else.
How can we help?
Today we have come to the conclusion that children can only learn from adults. And that play time is a waste of their time. Childhood has changed from a time of freedom to a time of resume a building. I am not sure about the authors claim that suicide rates and depression are increasing in correlation with reduction in free play. But is something to keep in mind.
How can we help? By allowing more free play time to kids. Stop obsessing over learning and knowledge all the time. Don’t supervise kids all the time. Let them play by themselves with other kids of different ages. Have the courage to trust that they will figure out things by themselves. That is the only way to make them resilient. Especially during this COVID-19 phase we are restricting play even more. But that could be detrimental to their development. If you are still reading then you might also be interested in the following video.