Play is still children at work

Are kids forgetting how to play – or being robbed of opportunities to move their bodies, explore their world and learn how to get along with others? Plenty of research says yes. One Yale University study found more aggressive behavior and more expulsions in preschools with less play time. There’s some evidence that creativity and curiosity are taking a hit, too.

A recent Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center study even found that ‘safety first’ playgrounds – the ho-hum type with slow slides, short climbing sections and enclosed platforms that don’t lead anywhere interesting – are so boring that kids don’t want to play on them for very long.  “Children learn on the playground,” the lead researcher told HealthDay. “They learn about nature, weather and the seasons, motion, concepts of distance and speed, and cause and effect. They learn how to negotiate and talk with their peers. And they learn fundamental gross motor skills, like how to throw and catch a ball, and how to skip."

What ever happened to those high metal sliding boards, metal-pipe monkey bars, wooden see-saws and crazy merry-go-rounds of the past? Pediatrician Gary Emmett, M.D., director of hospital pediatrics at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and a contributor to the Healthy Kids blog has these thoughts:

“Play is the work of a child,” said Maria Montessori the creator of the pre-school education method that bears her name.  Unfortunately, we adults all too often forget this fact when it has to do with our own children — and this produces some unforeseen outcomes.

The combination of rushing children to learn academics (readin’, ’ritin’, ‘rithmatic) in pre-school instead of social skills, combined with exaggerated safety concerns results in 2- to 4- year-olds who never exercise and never do independent play. An institution developed to get children to learn life skills becomes a place just to start school too early.  Many children, especially boys, who are just not ready for sitting still and learning academics become “failures” even before kindergarten.

We are also obsessed with making everything “100 percent safe.”  A recent article in the New York Times, “Is It Safe to Play Yet,” (may require free registration) says it is hard to tell when safety checks in a household become obsession.  “Safe” playgrounds are, unfortunately, often boring playgrounds. When I was small, I was the “safety” on the merry-go-round, which was dangerous and exciting. It was also superb exercise. Today, some elementary schools in Philadelphia do not have outdoor time at all so no one gets hurt. 

I do not have a good answer for safe play areas – we do want everyone to be safe, but we do have to let (make!) our children run as much as they can because that will get improve their short-term and long-term health at the expense of a few bumps and bruises. Let's just not lose sight of the fact that preschool is PREschool. Let our children interact, play and learn from each other how to work in society.

What do you think? Does your child get enough unstructured outdoor play time? Do kids run around in your neighborhood, at local parks or local playgrounds anymore?