The Importance of Play Time for Children
Background and Strategies for Parents and Teachers
Kids can fall behind in reading for a lot of reasons. Some of these reasons are more or less biological—dyslexia, for example—but others have to do with the environment that they find themselves in. When kids get are taught poorly in the early stages of their reading education, for example, it can cause problems that persist for months or even years. We’ve written about a few things that can cause this kind of problem, including spanking your children or relying on daycare to do your parenting. In some cases, though, a child will fall behind simply because they’re not getting one of a few crucial things in their environment. One of those things is play.
It sounds strange, but unstructured play time is crucial to child development, in in areas that seem as disparate as reading. For context, unstructured play time means time spent without direct adult supervision, inventing games and improvising. This is a characteristic part of childhood, but researchers didn’t learn that it had any kind of utility until the late 20th century—which, not coincidentally, is when it started to vanish from children’s lives. We’ll get into that, and its impact on reading, and try to offer solutions for parents and educators.
Why it’s Important to Make Up the Rules
When kids make up games, they’re not just daydreaming or avoiding work: cooperative, unstructured play has real educational utility. It allows kids to take on roles they wouldn’t normally take on, learn about each other outside of the classroom, and figure ways out of challenging situations on their own. This, in turn, builds important skills like leadership, conflict resolution, and empathy. It helps develop social cohesion and a strong sense of self without adults needing to get involved. We’ve found the ultimate in-depth guide, courtesy of our friend Jenny over at Mom Loves Best, which we highly recommend.
Unfortunately, schools have increasingly lost unstructured play time. In 1989, 96% percent of schools had at least 1 recess period; by 1999, the number had fallen to only 70%, even in kindergartens. What you might think of as “structured” play time—physical education classes, game-like class activities and so forth—don’t provide a proper substitute for true unstructured play because they don’t offer children the opportunities to create rules for themselves, so they don’t address the cognitive deficit created by the loss of unstructured play time.
Understandably, the effects of this are very negative. A 2007 article in the journal Pediatrics found that “highly-scheduled” children—that is, children who are shuttled between activities, with little free time for unstructured play—sometimes react with stress, anxiety, and eventually depression, which is on the rise through the teenage years and especially in college. Losing the ability to create their own rules in childhood leads children to feel alienated, lonely, and adrift, without a clear idea of their identity.
Even setting aside the fact that stressed, lonely children are less likely to become good readers, the loss of unstructured play time has some unique effects on reading. A 2009 article from the American Psychological Association argues that the kind of imaginary play children engage in on the playground actually lays the groundwork for symbolic thinking, which is crucial for an developing reading. Substituting a block for a toy teacup and continuing the game is practice for substituting the letter “A” for the sound “Ahh”, and if children fail to make that symbolic link, it can severely slow their progress in learning to read.
When kids make up games, they’re not just daydreaming or avoiding work: cooperative, unstructured play has real educational utility. Click to Tweet
Strategies to Re-Center Play
If you homeschool your kids, make sure that you’re leaving space in your daily schedule for play. Not just downtime, either, but real play, especially if your child is very young. If you have a co-op to spend time with, so much the better (we’ve talked about the benefits of co-ops before), but even if you don’t, make sure you’re playing with your child. And make sure that, when you do, you let them make the rules.
If you’re an educator in a conventional school, you should press for more free time whenever you can. Schools that focus on mathematics and reading at the expense of play are doing their students a disservice, as we’ve noted above, and the more you can make the administration understand that the better. And even if you can’t get through to them, you can always incorporate more student-directed play into your lessons.
Finally, if you’re a parent sending your children to conventional school, considering giving your children more free time. It’s a noble desire to give your kids the best possible future, but “enrichment” can be too much of a good thing. Much of the research that I looked through to write this article focused on the problem of “hurrying”—constantly rushing children from one scheduled event to another. This, like everything else up above, can cut down on the amount of time children are able to make up the rules for themselves, and do serious cognitive damage in the long run.