Do Children Know How to Play Any More?

On Facebook yesterday was a letter from a child's school saying that, now the evenings are lighter, there would be no homework.  Great, good news for lots of children and parents, and the perfect opportunity to do something real rather than arbitrary paper learning.  Well done headmaster!  The second paragraph of the letter is, however, somewhat astounding.

The head teacher's letter goes on to suggest that parents get their children outside, to be active; to walk or cycle; to play with friends; spend time with family; enjoy a hobby or read or write for pleasure.  All very laudable and perfect ways for children to spend their time, but are the families at this school really in such a parlous state that they need this instruction?  Is this not what those children do anyway?

And if they don't, what do they do with their free time?!

Remember the slew of news stories that abounded a few years ago, and prompted the National Trust to start it's 50 things to do... campaign?  Research had revealed that few children played outside any more, they didn't climb trees, splash in rivers, build dens, search for animal tracks and insects.  They couldn't make daisy chains, refused to get muddy, didn't collect sticks or roll down hills.  Instead they were stuck indoors in front of the TV, or more likely behind a games console or iPad.

Most adults who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s spent endless hours playing outside with friends on their street, often regardless of the weather.  'Playing out' has of course become more fraught with the seemingly ever-present threat of 'stranger danger' plus the ever-increasing traffic, but from the perspective of Headmaster X's letter, it seems that children are not even spending much time outside with their parents supervising.

Many parents would say they just don't have the time to oversee their children playing outdoors, especially during free play.  After all, the hectic daily round of school pick up, followed by endless after-school activities, followed by quick dinner, read book, bedtime routine, and back on to the treadmill, hardly leaves time for any freedom, for anyone.

And maybe that's the crux of it all, the endless scheduling.  From birth, parents enrol their child in activities.  They sign, sing, swim, play music, do yoga, massage, go to coffee mornings etc etc; toddlers have the same plus new languages and other classes; once they get to school, the after school clubs, Beavers, music and goodness knows what else begins.  It's endless, although time, of course, is not.  So where is the space for free play?

I remember a friend bringing her children round a few years ago.  Our sitting room-playroom was awash with baskets of toys, and the two of them stood there asking their mother 'what do we do?'

Even crafts are regimented and controlled, with adults wanting to re-create the beautiful collage/card/product they found on Pinterest, not the kids-had-fun and who cares what the end product is result of yesteryear.  Toys have objectives and one-dimensional possibilities, usually with a variety of pre-determined outcomes, there's just no room or time for imagination and seeing just what game you can make with a cup and a stick.

Worried you might be a controlling mum?  Watch this!  Hilarious.

Time in nature, free play, freedom to do as you please and create new games and adventures, have ideas, be 'bored' and find a way to combat it, seems to be a thing of the past.  Activities are scheduled, both in the home and out of it, school and other organised activities are regimented beyond belief, weekends are packed full of more classes, scheduled formal family fun, organised playdates and more; even playtimes and holidays require play schemes, play leaders and planned, pre-determined outcome activities.

When parents finally do have time off with their kids, the resort's kids club beckons welcomingly, or they go to Center Parcs or some other venue where the activities are over-planned and a timetable needs to be created so everyone does whatever they need to in their various time slots.  You will enjoy yourself!!

Where is the freedom?  Where is the ability to self-determine, to create, to stretch yourself, and begin to discover who you are?

Well done to that school for banning homework, for a few weeks at least, but maybe parents need to ban over-scheduling and electronics for a while too.  Get rid of the timetables, the schedules, the iPads, X-Boxes, Wiis etc and let your kids be free.

But my kids don't like that stuff, you say, they'll be bored. Let them be bored!  Let them entertain themselves!  Let them get muddy, climb trees, fall over, create a mess, create everything.  Start a stick collection, go hunting for insects, play in rivers and streams, teach them to cook or sew or knit, buy art supplies and draw, make, create, sod the outcome.  Let them be free, play, and just be a child.

What role do parents play in all this?  Ditch the schedule for a start.  Then ditch the expectations.  Then let them go wild.  Keep an eye by all means, but from a distance.  Let them explore nature, and discover the world and everything in it on their own.  Take a ball and a magnifying glass.  Everything else will be there already.

The effect freedom will have on their future success and emotional and physical wellbeing is immeasurable.

Modern childhood is where the ridiculous notion that doing something just because we want to is wasting time; where doing rather than being and having a full schedule with little downtime becomes, somehow, normal - and, laughably, important.  Where enjoying life and fulfilling your own needs takes a backseat to achieving and contributing.

All that starts with overscheduling, focussing on end products rather than process, and lacking the freedom to control your own time and life.  Great if we want to produce automatons, but not great if we want to nurture happy, fulfilled human beings.

Slow down, take your time and enjoy life.  Encourage your children to do the same.  Simplicity and freedom are key.

Forget planned activities, stay away from the fixed equipment, the electronics and the fixed outcome toys, and let them run/roll/skip/jump/climb free.

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