Friday, November 18, 2005
A time to play — finding value in what kids do best
Walking through the woods after school this fall, leaves rustle in the wind, water in a brook rushes over the rocks and cool air refreshes. But the woods are empty on most afternoons. "Eight, nine, and ten year-olds used to wander to ball fields, wander into the woods," says George Scarlett, Carlisle resident and author of Children's Play. Now children are rarely seen playing unsupervised in their neighborhoods, biking, or exploring together. Scarlett regrets children's loss of freedom to roam, even as he understands that some parents are afraid to let their kids out of sight in a world not considered as safe anymore.
Children's Play, a college textbook for students and educators, was co-authored by Scarlett with three Tufts graduate students. The book gives a broad overview of the existing research data on play, along with some careful observations based on his years of working with children. Scarlett wants to foster an appreciation of what children do best. "Play, if you start to understand it, you can see its beauty. It has a value in and of itself. People playing are thriving, by definition."
The preschool years are the peak years for make-believe play. Parents can do a lot to encourage make-believe by reading books and visiting places related to a child's passion. Though parents may worry about imaginary play that features themes of death or destruction, he says the content of play is not as important as the structure. If a young child's make-believe play is alive with many imaginary details, it is a good sign and is considered rich play.
Research shows that gender has a big influence on play, even at a very young age. Boys and girls tend to play in separate groups starting at about age three or four, with gender division continuing into elementary school. It is a natural separation that has little to do with parental influence and it should not be overly analyzed, he advises.
While most see play as always good, there is also bad play. Mean-spiritedness, play that excludes or ridicules other children, or risky misbehavior are all examples.
Trends for all children
At the same time outdoor play time is decreasing, organized youth sports are increasing and the two go hand in hand, he says. The rise of organized youth sports has raised some concerns for children. Earlier generations of children did not play one sport year-round or experience the pace of organized sports today. "It all depends on whether adults organize and direct with children in mind, whether they meet children's needs and support children's wishes," he writes, "whether they attend to what the ball does to the child and not just to what the child does to the ball."
Commercialization of children's play is a trend that continues as more and more toys are linked to television shows and videos. Also more computer games for infants and toddlers are developed each year, though they are not proven to give children any advantage according to current studies. While preschool age children are more cognitively ready for computer games, real play experience is always best. "Although most types of computer or console games provide children with an opportunity to practice hand-eye coordination," he writes, "they tend to exclude gross motor skills and they limit children's exploration to specific activities that are determined by the software."
Electronic toys also take up some of school-aged children's free time, with boys outnumbering girls in the amount of time spent on computer games, and electronic games such as GameCube, PlayStation, and Xbox. One reason may be that more computer games feature action and are designed specifically for boys. GameCube and other electronic sets played on a console attached to the TV allow some interaction between children as they take turns to play.
The popularity of some computer games with violent content like the Grand Theft Auto games require parents to actively monitor what their children play. "Parental guidance and involvement in children's electronic play is important for children of all ages," he writes, "Although industry rating systems do exist, they often do not match parental views and concerns."
More new children's classes and programs seem to be offered every year. Parents need to be sensitive to their children and on the lookout for complaints, tiredness, or other signs that their child may need more free time. The main key for parents throughout childhood is to support children's passions, Scarlett says. "Parents are more along for the ride than to drive the child."
George Scarlett is a professor at Tufts University's Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development where he has taught courses on children's play to students for years. He is the author of several textbooks devoted to childhood issues.
© 2005 The Carlisle Mosquito