There is a lack and serious need for wholesome play in childhood.
On August 1, 1966, the day Dr. Stuart Brown started his assistant professorship at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, 25-year-old Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the University of Texas Tower on the Austin campus and shot 46 people.
Whitman, an engineering student and a former U.S. Marine sharpshooter, was the last person anyone expected to go on a killing spree.
After Brown was assigned as the state’s consulting psychiatrist to investigate the incident and later, when he interviewed 26 convicted Texas murderers for a small pilot study, he discovered that most of the killers, including Whitman, shared two things in common: they were from abusive families, and they didn’t play as kids.
Brown did not know which factor was more important. But in the 42 years since, he has interviewed some 6,000 people about their childhoods, and his data suggest that a lack of opportunities for unstructured, imaginative play can keep children from growing into happy, well-adjusted adults.
“Free play,” as scientists call it, is critical for becoming socially adept, coping with stress, and building cognitive skills such as problem-solving. (source)
Skeptical About the Value of Play?
It’s terribly sad the old-fashioned notion of summer as endless free time – to climb trees, pick blackberries, chase fireflies, build a fort, or make popsicles – is just a distant memory for most. It’s what children need – they need it far more than they need a high-priced summer camp, dance lessons, or some program aimed at cramming a little bit more learning into their exhausted brains.
For play skeptics, experiments conducted by the Early Childhood Cognition Lab in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) show children calculating probabilities during play, developing assumptions about their physical environment, and adjusting perceptions according to the direction of authority figures. Other researchers are also discovering a breathtaking depth to play: how it develops chronological awareness and its link to language development and self-control.
I keep reading the statistics about how kids are spending less time playing, NO recess in schools, and about how they are spending more time seated at a desk or in a car or doing homework after being in school all day. Over the last three decades, children have lost 8 hours of free, unstructured, and spontaneous play a week.
Spending more time in front of the TV, with their electronic device, or over-scheduled with less time in wholesome play in side or out, is changing kids’ cognitive, creative, and emotional development. We know that children’s capacity for self-regulation—their ability to control their emotions and behavior and to resist impulses—is much worse than it was 60 years ago. In one study, today’s 5-year-olds had the self-regulation capability of a 3-year-old in the 1940s, and today’s 7-year-old barely approached the level of a 5-year-old 60 years ago.
Many parents suppose that creativity and the ability to control oneself is an inherited predisposition in a child – either they were born with or born without it. But actually, creativity and self-governance are learned skills rather than inborn traits or talents, and they are skills parents can help their kids develop through early years of play.
Simple, everyday things can make all the difference in a child’s development.
Huge Benefits to Free Play
- Ability to observe, problem solve, and understand connections = greater understanding
- Learn acceptable ways to handle difficulty and challenges = greater measures of self control (competency)
- Helps children learn how to work in groups, share, negotiate, resolve conflicts, regulate their emotions and behavior, and speak-up for themselves = greater self-governance (learning to say no to oneself) and less frustration
- Develops productive citizens (builders, solid mates and parents, communicators, scientists, writers, artists, engineers, leaders) needed for a successful society
“Neuroscientists, developmental biologists, and researchers from every point of the scientific compass now know that play is a profound biological process,” says Stuart Brown, a leading play researcher and author. “Play fosters empathy in kids, and lies at the very heart of creativity and innovation. And the ability to play has a profound effect on our outlook on life.”
1. Fewer Toys – Ones That Don’t Do Much On Their Own
Best: big (appliance-sized) cardboard boxes, blocks, a small wading pool (also used to clean after sandbox, dirt, mud puddles, painting), a sprinkler, balls, dolls, stuffed animals, puppets, a wagon, couch cushions, sheets, cardboard table for playhouse, clothesline to make a tent with sheets, empty kitchen base cabinet (doubles as a ‘house’) that has a children’s cooking set and dishes near where you you cook, manipulatives and sensory bins, Etch-A-Sketch, old costumes, props, scrap lumber (nails and hammer), a hatchet, scraps of fabric and a sewing machine, camera not tied to internet, journal, etc.
Toys For Free Play:
- Magnetic tiles building set
- Wooden blocks: Melissa & Doug Standard Unit Solid-Wood Building Blocks With Wooden Storage Tray (60 pcs)
- The Fort Magic Kit (354 Pc long flexible tubes and connectors)
- Marble run
- Legos (we found much of our extras at garage sales) – again multiplied hours learning without knowing it!
- LEGO Yellow Submarine
- Wooden Train Track compatible with major brands including Thomas
- Lego Creator Space Shuttle Explorer
- Engineering Building Blocks
- 12 Pc Wooden Engines & Train Cars Compatible with Thomas Wooden Railway
- Jumbo Extra-Thick Cardboard Building Blocks
More toys for open-ended play worth owning.
Reading out-loud – sometimes a couple of hours a day – provides lots of food for children’s imagination, jump-starting play. Children are absorbent sponges and imitators, so make the content the BEST!
- 100+ Whole-Hearted Books To Fight Back the Culture
- 60 Titles For The Well-Rounded Children’s Bookshelf
3. Imaginative Play and Dress-up
From knights and cowboys to princesses and brides, children have been pretending practically forever. Dressing up in old clothes, hats, capes, and swords from Goodwill or Salvation Army offer them with lots of tools for acting out the stories that inspire their hearts. Parents should keep their eyes open but only interrupt if necessary to guide or redirect play. Children’s play will likely be innocent unless they have witnessed inappropriate things.
4. Get Outdoors (if at all possible)
Children (and adults) need time to listen to the wind whistle in the leaves, birds, a warm rain on their faces, or simply feel the warmth of the sun on their shoulders with a good book. Time to swing real high for the sheer joy of it and to explore God’s creation in all its grandeur. They’ll be surprised at what goes on in the world!
Where The Rubber Meets the Road
In Why Kids Need Unstructured Play, Madeline Levine makes a very strong case:
Kids who have no down time and no time for unstructured play never get to know themselves. They know only who others tell them they are. If they don’t have that they will be always looking for external direction and validation. Getting to know oneself takes time and emotional energy, and when all that is spent trying to get a leg up on an academic career, or become the best soccer player on the field, there is no time left for the internal work of whole-child development.
When I Grow Up by Jim Daly, one of my favorite artists.
Learning who you are takes place, not in the act of doing, but in the quiet spaces between things. The more of these quiet spaces you can provide your children, the better.
Many young people today have never experienced the gift of a carefree early childhood and as parents one day (without turning to God for answers) will not be able to supply it to their own children. It only takes one, possibly two generations for the wonderful old ways of bringing up children to be lost.
“Pour in the sunshine about them in youth. Let them be happy, encourage all innocent joy, provide pleasant games for them, romp and play with them; be a child again among them. Then God’s blessing will come upon your home, and your children will grow up sunny-hearted, gentle, affectionate, joyous themselves and joy-bearers to the world.” ~
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Very very good things here. I know that with the schools putting more pressure on students to learn more and be a higher achiever that recess has been shortened a good bit. I worked in the school for 24 years and it keeps getting worse with so much testing required.
I didn’t know you worked at a school, but I would think you’d be an amazing teacher! 🙂 I had two wonderful, life-changing teachers back in first and second grade (in the 50s), consequently, I adore teachers that pour love, truth, and courage into their young charges. Thank you for serving all those years. Yes, testing, testing…poor children! I’d be frightened out of my wits if I was pushed to perform on tests, but was not equipped to function well in real life!
Thanks for your consistent encouragement here to me and sharing your thoughts. God wrap His loving arms around you each day this week. 🙂
Lovely post Jacqueline! And so much truth in your words. A dear friend of mine was telling me of children she watched for a family in her church when they were having their 3rd or 4th child. She took the kids to the park (ages 3 and 6 maybe?) and when they walked up to the playground, the kids just stood there. They have never been to the park and didn’t know what to do!
My wise friend had known they hadn’t been before so made that the goal of the day 🙂
Oh, I forgot to mention parks and picnics. I am thankful for your wise friend who could acquaint these two children to the delights of swings and monkey bars! I hope she exceeded her expectations!
Blessings to you, friend 🙂
So so true! This is another reason I homeschool because I feel kids learn better in a free environment. Learning shouldn’t be limited to 8 hrs in a desk. We try to take day trips to the zoo, aquarium & museums that go alongside his schooling. Everyday we allow free play outside & in, its something every child needs! Thanks for an awesome reminder!
Rebecca @ Livewellthirivemore
Awesome! I was homeschooled from baby to High school graduation! I loved it! We got all our studies done before 1, and then we were able to go outside and play or go make some artwork! And get our chores done haha 🙂 We went to the creek often, and walked through the treefarm where our dad taught us different plants you could and couldn’t eat and so much more! We took day trips on the weekend, and learned about the ocean and other fun things. Also our library system has an awesome summer reading program that me and my sister always excelled at (Avid reader whoot!) So I’m so excited to hear other people homeschool! 🙂 I plan on doing it when we have kids too!
This is great! I agree with you about all these points. Free play is huge to their development and interaction with others! Thanks for this post
Rebecca @ Livewellthirivemore
I love this. We had so much fun playing outside and using our imagination! We didn’t have a ton of toys and we also had limited TV and Video game time until we were 16! I say we because I’m including my sister in this 🙂 My parents were very involved with school (we were homeschooled) and then with making sure not only did we do household chores, that we played outside, were creative more then we were in front of the TV.
I see my younger cousins now, their parents buy them the NEWEST gadgets (I know a 4 year old with the newest Ipad, I didn’t get my first Ipad until I was 24… for Christmas lol) the parents use electronics and video games and TV’s as “baby sitters” and then their kids also have a TON of toys, like I think my 1 year old cousins just got more toys for their first birthday then I did for 5 of mine combined!
Kids need to be creative, and need to be outside, need to learn how to care for plants and animals (even a dog or cat or even a guinea pig!) they need to have discipline and learn hard work earns more privileges and commission and that they don’t just get to plop down in front of a TV for 5 hours after school and get money as an allowance for doing regular household chores that should be expected because you are apart of the family. I didn’t mind the length in the least! Good read! 🙂
Amen! Oh, kids need to play and play some more, Jacqueline! This is so important for their development yet they just don’t get enough. As a retired public school teacher/children’s librarian, tutoring public school children now who are falling behind in the primary grades, I discovered that recess has been taken away after the first grade in some of our schools. That is unbelievable to me! They need breaks amidst the desk work…at least!!
I came over, Jacqueline, to let you know that I have changed my book review blog from Weebly to WordPress and your “100+ books…” that I used on my book review blog last September has a new address. The neat thing about this change is that my posts of these past two plus years are being revived with new lookers. Your post is on top right now. Until I finish getting everything done, I will not be reviewing a new book so your post will stay on top for a little while as it is the last one to get transferred!! The new address is https://thereaderandthebookreviews.wordpress.com/2015/08/12/100-whole-hearted-books-to-fight-back-the-culture/
It was nice to come by tonight. May your week be filled with the aromas of God’s blessings. ~ linda @ Being Woven and The Reader and the Book
Oh, how neat that you have a ‘new’ blog…sort of? And how kind of you to put that 100+ Books right at the top so it gets seen 🙂 I’m coming over and can’t wait to see what you’ve done 🙂 Thanks for the encouragement, friend.
We definitely live in a different time and need to be mindful of how much time kids are in front of screens. When kids come over to play they have asked if they can do video games or bring their kindle over and I simply say no because if they are here for a PLAY date they are supposed to play and use their imaginations. It went so well yesterday that everyone played happily for 3 hours. I find when the kids have had too much screen time it makes them more feisty with one another too.
I’m so glad you set the tone for real play! You’re an awesome Mama, Joann 🙂
Awesome post. In evaluating toys, my mother used to always say, “Is the play in the toy or in the child?” and I have tried to live by that with my kids. It seems to me that we are in the middle of a huge social experiment with our kids and it is not going to end well.
I love your mother’s words…a great measuring stick of a toys worth! Thanks, Leslie 🙂
Love it! We homeschool our kids following Waldorf philosophy for the reasons you mention above. We want our kids to have time to be kids, to play with sticks and stones, and to stay away from computers and TV.
I agree whole heartedly! I love that my children have the opportunity to play throughout the best parts of the day! Playing outside is a must for everyone! It’s so restful and good for the body, mind, and spirit. I do think if my kids could live outside they would. I think their favorite time to be outside is when it’s raining. The wetter and muddier they are the bigger the smiles. Thank you for writing this post. We need to guard these precious years for them. Their life depends on it.
wonderfully scripted article. Thanks for sharing this with us. i as a mom always wanted my child to play as it is sure help my baby jeny to learn a lot of values. and also while playing, children are sure to improves their interpersonal skills along with physical and emotional skills. Jeny also play in front of her mirror always and surprisingly i came across a article ( http://goo.gl/G0CVWs )that stated how playing with mirror changes the face of child’s skills. thanks Jacqueline for this writeup. i promise that i am going to follow your works from now.
It is my pleasure to write, Arona 🙂 I loved being a mother and so much flows right from that experience. Play is amazingly formative…I never realized it until our children were older! Thanks for the link. I’ll check it out! Hugs 🙂