The Value of Play

Isn't it ironic that a country whose constitution allows for the pursuit of happiness now feels a collective guilt about the very idea of anything fun? How did this happen? When did we begin placing so much priority on productivity and so little on leisure or on having a good time? Even given the Puritan work ethic, life in America has become so unbalanced that one side of the seesaw is pretty much grounded.

But why must we insist that our children, who by their very nature are playful, share these particular values? Why are we so anxious for our children to "act like adults?"

But wait, you may be thinking, kids play plenty these days. They play T-ball, soccer, even tennis?

Yes, these are forms of play. But the true definition of the word, as it applies to children, is that it be child-directed, open-ended, and intrinsically motivated. It also focuses more on the process than the product, which cannot technically be said about T-ball, soccer, or tennis, where homeruns, goals, and points are typically the focus.

However, if we really must have "product" ? that is, results ? from our children's activities, play has plenty of that to offer, too. For one thing, many experts believe the adult personality is built upon the child's play. According to Playing for Keeps, all of the skills children need to develop into functioning, productive adults originate from play. These skills include literacy, mathematical reasoning, creativity, and social skills. Among the social skills learned, the experts tell us, are the ability to share, cooperate, negotiate, compromise, make and revise rules, and take the perspective of others.

Surely we can see the value in such benefits ? that these abilities will serve our children better than the ability to name the states' capitals! But, if that's not enough benefit derived, Joan Isenberg and Mary Renck Jalongo, authors of Creative Expression and Play in the Early Childhood Curriculum, argue that play

* enables children to explore their world;

* develop cultural understandings;

* helps children express their thoughts and feelings; and

* provides opportunities to meet and solve problems.

Additionally, play enables children to deal with stress and to cope with fears they can't yet understand or express. Today's young children are exposed to so much so early and must cope with much more stress than their predecessors ever did. Pay gives them a necessary emotional release and helps them make sense of everything they're experiencing. And as Playing for Keeps points out, when young children act out emotion-laden scenes in their play, such as reassuring a doll that mommy will return, they learn to cope with fears and gain the self-control that will bring them to the next state of development.

Writing in Education Week, master teacher Sheila Flaxman states that today's young children are controlled by the "expectations, whims, and rules of adults. Play is the only time they can take control of their world." She goes on to state: "The almost daily media reports of out-of-control young people should be our warning that something is amiss in early childhood." Indeed, retired psychiatrist Stuart Brown, founder of the Institute for Play in Carmel Valley, California, was quoted in Time Magazine as saying that "play deprivation" can lead to "depression, hostility, and the loss of the things that make us human beings."

For a great many contemporary adult human beings, balance is a word that has come to symbolize something out of reach. Something desired but elusive, as we work long hours, tend to families, and spend what little free time we have as productively as possible. What used to be considered leisure time (remember lazy Sunday afternoons?) must now be filled. It doesn't matter whether it's with "recreation," chores of one kind or another, or shuttling the children here and there, just so long as we can say we didn't waste it. "What did you do this weekend?" has become a question to be reckoned with on Monday mornings. It demands a smart answer, just as surely as did our eight-grade algebra teacher.

If you're an adult who's been giving balance some consideration ? who's tired of the treadmill ? perhaps you find yourself looking back fondly on what now seems to be an idyllic childhood. Back to the days when time stretched endlessly before you. Back when there were few demands on that time. And, except for summers, weekends, and days when the darkness fell too early, there always seemed to be plenty of it.

Shouldn't today's children have similar memories to cling to when they become busy adults? Let's make sure they have quiet moments of solitude. Child-initiated and -directed activity. A break from the relentless competition so prevalent in society. Let's make sure they have a chance to play!

Rae Pica is a children's physical activity specialist and the author of Your Active Child: How to Boost Physical, Emotional, and Cognitive Development through Age-Appropriate Activity (McGraw-Hill, 2003). Rae speaks to parent and education groups throughout North America. Visit her and read more articles at

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