What’s the best way to help your child gain the skills she needs to reason through and overcome the various challenges she will face growing up?
How can you best prepare her for adolescence? For college? For adulthood?
Conventional wisdom might lead you to conclude that sending her to full-day pre-kindergarten beginning at age 3, filling her days with worksheets, flashcards, reading and tests would be the most effective preparation.
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Instead, you might try less school, less structure.
And more time to play.
It may sound counterintuitive. How could more time running around outside, making believe, swinging from the jungle gym, far away from the classroom and textbooks, lead to smart, capable and well-adjusted kids?
The answer is quite simple.
A growing body of research strongly suggests that children absolutely need play for learning, growth and development.
Children learn how to interact with their environment through play. It’s essential to developing social and emotional ties, first with family, then with peers.
Playing enhances language skills, risk management and problem-solving, significantly affecting emotional and mental well-being in ways traditional learning simply cannot address.
Unstructured playtime also provides opportunities for children to develop complex cognitive skills; they learn how to negotiate with other children; they learn how to self-regulate and manage their emotions.
And our cultural shift away from play is probably causing our children significant harm.
A new book from researcher Erika Christakis encourages teachers and parents to rethink what young children require for learning and development.
The problem, Christakis says, is that “the distinction between early education and official school seems to be disappearing.”
It may not sound like it, but that is a potentially dangerous thing.
Our current emphasis on early childhood learning in structured, school-like environments is “adultifying childhood” and leaving kids without uninterrupted stretches of time to engage in fantasy play that is crucial to their growth and development.
You might even say that some kids are moving right from infancy to forced adulthood, skipping a stage of life they need to experience for future success.
During a recent interview with NPR, Christakis explained how building a fort “activate[s] more cognitive learning domains” than a typical classroom assignment, like a worksheet or a quiz.
“If you’re building a fort with your peers, you’re talking, using higher-level language structures in play than you would be if you’re sitting at a table,” she said. “You’re doing math skills, you’re doing physics measurement, engineering — but also doing the give-and-take of ‘How do I get along? How do I have a conversation? What am I learning from this other person?’ And that’s very powerful.”
And Christakis isn’t alone in her thinking.
Debbie Rhea, a professor at TCU, is a longtime advocate of unstructured outdoor play.
She is the founder and director of the LiiNK Project (Let’s inspire innovation ‘N kids), a research-based initiative whose goals include increasing the time public schools allot for physical activity and creative play.
Several years ago, Rhea’s team conducted a study in two Texas private schools, weaving several unstructured outdoor play breaks and character development lessons throughout into the daily schedule, without extending the school day.
In only two years, the results were clear.
Children who participated were more disciplined, exhibited more focus and performed better academically.
Rhea is trialing her program in several public schools in North Texas this year, and early feedback suggests similar outcomes.
With studies consistently showing that American students are falling behind their global peers in basic skills, knowledge and job readiness, state and local governments are grappling with ways to improve academic outcomes, including universal pre-kindergarten and, in some cases, even extending the school day.
But policymakers should not ignore the research that confirms the obvious: There’s as much to be learned on the monkey bars as there is in the classroom.
Our kids need more time to play.