The lazy, crazy, hazy days of summer are all but gone. September is upon us, and for families with children that means the start of a new school year. Hello again Pledge of Allegiance, homework folders, lost lunch boxes, permission slips, and early bed times! Hello, as well, soccer / football / basketball / baseball / track / gymnastics / band / choir / dance / theatre . . . and the many other extracurricular activities that can fill our children’s every waking moment if we’re not careful! Amidst all of this, it’s important not to lose sight of a child’s most important work. And that work is PLAY.
Just for a moment, close your eyes and remember back to the days of your own childhood. Where did you live? What did your bedroom look like? Who was your best friend? Most important, what did you like to play?
I was born in 1970 and grew up in Pawtucket, RI, a suburb of Providence. My neighborhood was comprised of small ranch houses, lined neatly in rows. Ours was the gray house with the blue shutters on the corner of Dover Street and Memorial Drive. We had a red and white swing set in the back yard, and a large catalpa tree which each summer sprouted dangling, bean-like seed pods that my brother and I called cigars. My bedroom was a cheerful shade of yellow, my bed covered with a Holly Hobbie quilt, my shelves overflowing with baby dolls and books. My best friend’s name was Erin Nagle. We met in the first grade and were practically inseparable for the next ten years. I had a fairly typical childhood, filled with ups and downs, joys and sorrows, a few truly remarkable, memorable moments, and many ordinary, not-so-memorable ones. But what I remember most fondly is simply the joy of playing.
I played all the time. I lived to play. Sure, I went to school each day and worked hard to memorize spelling words and multiplication tables, but I never lost sight of my REAL WORK. My real work began after school. My real work began at 3:00 PM, when I arrived home, deposited my Snoopy lunch box on the kitchen counter, and got busy with what really mattered. PLAYING. In the winter I played indoors. I used gift wrap to wallpaper dollhouses I created from shoe boxes. I used sheets and clothes pins to build forts with my brother, and we’d sit beneath them pretending we were soldiers, sipping metallic tasting tap water from his canteen. I convinced neighborhood children to be my students, as I, their faithful teacher, handed out homework assignments, report cards, and stickers for good effort. Other days I chose to play alone, descending downstairs to the cool, damp basement, where I constructed elaborate fantasy scenarios involving my assorted collection of dolls. I gave the dolls both first and middle names, as well as birth dates, illnesses, talents, and very specific personalities. There were days when I would become so engrossed in my play that I would emerge hours later, when my mom called me upstairs for dinner, blinking as my eyes adjusted from the dimness of the basement to the bright light of the kitchen. When the weather turned warmer I rode my banana seat bicycle around the neighborhood, collected acorns, and fed bread crumbs to ants — much to my parents’ dismay. I played kick ball in the street, blew bubbles on the lawn, and roller-skated in the driveway.
My point is that I played a lot. A whole lot. I’m quite certain that I played more than my own children play. And this saddens and concerns me. It concerns me because I fear that play is becoming a lost art, an endangered occupation. Today’s society places a strong emphasis on organized, extracurricular activities, many of which strive to be educational in nature. Kids can choose to participate in Scouts, dance class, art class, gymnastics, karate, swim team, cheerleading, riding lessons, piano lessons, voice instruction, drama club, and dozens of other organized sports or classes. The variety of offerings is mind-boggling, and many of these activities are excellent opportunities for children to learn new skills and have fun. The problem is not the activities themselves, but rather the increasing amounts of time children spend engaged in these highly structured environments. With so many extra-curricular options available, it is not only feasible, but also fairly common for a child to have one or more classes or practice sessions to attend every single day, including weekends. So when do our children have down time? When do our children experience the delicious sensation of a long, leisurely afternoon with nothing more to accomplish than playing?
One might wonder what the fuss is all about. Does play truly matter? Is play really all that important? The answer to that is a resounding and unequivocal YES! Play is absolutely essential to the growth and development of children. Play contributes significantly to physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development. Unstructured play time provides children the opportunity to make choices, plan, and expand their creativity. Pretend play allows kids to test their ideas about the world and modify them as they go along. It provides children with a way to work out emotional conflicts in creative ways. Fantasy play offers children a miniature world within which they can learn about social interactions and interpersonal relationships. When a child sifts sand through his fingers, mixes mud pies, or builds sand castles he is exploring rudimentary chemistry and physics. When a child constructs a tower out of Legos, or builds a barn of wooden blocks for her ponies, she is dabbling in the world of architecture, with all of its inherent math and science. When children gather together on the playground or in the back yard, playing house or school, pretending to be super heroes or creatures from outer space, they are exercising both their bodies and their imaginations, learning skills of negotiation and compromise. They are practicing for a time when they are grown-ups, and will indeed need to know about playing different roles, wearing different hats, and the vital importance of negotiation and compromise. In addition to all of this, studies have shown that for both adults and children, play relieves stress.
Play makes children healthier all around. It is perhaps one of the most important gifts we can give to our children. It costs absolutely nothing, but is immense in value. Years from now, when my children are busy adults, I hope that they, too, can look back at their childhoods and fondly remember a time when their REAL WORK, their most important work, the only work that really mattered, was playing.