Unstructured Play (and Why Your Kids Need More of It This Summer)
- Friday, July 26, 2013
Consider the complexities involved in a simple game of chase. The running and turning and ducking under and climbing over obstacles develops motor skills, but that’s just the beginning. Kids have to agree on the game and cooperate with each other, which are social skills. They also have to determine who’s going to be the leader, who’s going to be the follower, and when it’s time to renegotiate the roles.
This is just a small example but it shows why we should not be dismissive of play. Kids can learn more from a game of chase than from a week of leadership camp.
It teaches them how to handle stress and conflict. Consider the spats, arguments, and out-and-out fights kids get into when they’re playing with their friends. If they can’t resolve or at least smooth over their disagreements, then the game will grind to a halt—and that’s not good for anyone.
Solitary play, too, provides plenty of problem-solving practice. Watch a young girl playing with her dollhouse and talking to the dolls: If her “child” steals a cookie from the cookie jar she may try out different ways of handling the situation. Does she scold the child? Bash her over the head? Kick her out of the house?
Business leaders say that today’s young workers have a serious dearth of problem-solving skills. While it may seem counterintuitive, making more time for play may give your child a serious edge when she enters the business world.
It’s a feast for the senses—and the senses are the vehicles for childhood learning. You can explain a concept to children all day and they won’t get it. You can show them in a classroom laboratory, and, sure, they may “get it” on some level. But when they discover it themselves—by doing, not by listening to someone talk—ah, that’s when the light bulb really comes on.
You might tell a child, “Twelve ounces is twelve ounces no matter what kind of shape it takes.” But when he’s playing with a glass of water and pours it into a short, fat bowl, and then pours the same water into a tall, skinny glass, he sees what you mean. Kids do not have the capacity for abstract thinking. They learn by doing. And that’s what playing is all about: doing.
It gives kids a sense of power in a world in which they are essentially powerless. This is why kids love pretend dragon-slaying so much: They are helpless in the face of real-world “dragons” like parents, teachers, and other authority figures. Try to remember what it felt like to be small and powerless. Much of children’s fiction is on this theme (think Dorothy and her shaking clan before the hidden Wizard of Oz).
In order to push out into the world, to take risks and to craft ethical positions, kids need to feel that they have some impact on the environment. This gets rehearsed in play, helping to get kids ready to stand up to the school bully or to resist peer pressure.
It bridges the gap between imagination and creativity. All children are imaginative. Anyone who has ever seen a little girl wearing a white bathrobe and a towel draped over her head pretending she’s getting married or a little boy using a stick he found in the yard to cast wizard spells at the family dog has seen that imagination in action. Self-directed play cultivates that imagination into creativity.
And here’s the thing: The ability to innovate—to quickly connect dots that may not be readily apparent—is critical in a workplace where the pace is blistering and customers have limitless choices. A major study conducted by IBM found that the single most sought-after trait in CEOs is creativity. (“IBM Capitalizing on Complexity,” Insights from the Global Chief Executive Summary, 2009)
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