Seldom does a day go by when I don't hear this question," Mom, can I have some duct tape?"
I oblige, tearing off strips of the turquoise tape and wonder what sort of magic my kids are making now.
Given plenty of time to play, they imagine and then create.
They build castles,
and coon traps, for the critters that steal our avocados every night.
If I were to direct their play, to barge in with my adult ideas and rules, much of the magic would be lost.
So I don't.
That philosophy isn't just driven by selfishness on my part. (although I can always use the time that they are busily engaged to get some chores done)
It's a philosophy I hold very close to my heart.
Children need time to play.
They need lots of it.
Far more time, in fact, than we think they do.
Because their play is their work.
"Young children work hard at play. They invent scenes and stories, solve problems and negotiate their way through social roadblocks. They know what they want to do and work diligently to do it. Because their motivation comes from within, they learn the powerful lesson of pursuing their own ideas to a successful conclusion." (from Crisis in the Kindergarten--Why Children Need to Play in School pg 7)
Knowing how important play time is for all kids, I was shocked when Aaron came home one night last week and told me he'd heard on the radio that many kindergartners get, on average, less than 30 minutes of play time in their school day.
I couldn't believe it.
So I set to work researching.
One of the pieces I found was a 70 page report from the Alliance For Childhood called Crisis in the Kindergarten--Why Children Need to Play in School.
It is chock full of research, data and information about the value of playtime in childhood.
And, how much that playtime is missing in a typical child's school day.
"The latest research indicates that, on a typical day, children in all-day kindergartens spend four to six times as much time in literacy and math instruction and taking or preparing for tests (about two to three hours per day) as in free play or 'choice time" (30 minutes or less)"
"In Los Angeles, 25 percent of teachers surveyed said there was no time at all for free play in their kindergarten."
(from Crisis in the Kindergarten--Why Children Need to Play in School pg 18)
It's hard to believe that this is true.
Shouldn't early childhood school days have lots of time for stories, dress up, building, drawing, painting and dramatic play?
Are we really trading in all that time to dream and invent for worksheets and learning the long a sound?
Is it worth it?
Much of the research I read indicates that in the long run, it isn't.
"Long term research casts doubts in the assumption that starting earlier on the teaching of phonics and other discrete skills leads to better results. For example, most of the play based kindergartens in Germany were changed into centers for cognitive achievement during a wave of educational reform in the 1970s. But research comparing 50 play based classrooms with 50 early learning centers found that by age 10 the children who had played excelled over the others in a host of ways. They were more advanced in reading and mathematics and they were better adjusted socially and emotionally in school. They excelled in creativity and intelligence, oral expression and "industry". As a result of this study German kindergartens returned to being play based again." (from Crisis in the Kindergarten pg7)
It appears allowing more play time now leads to better academic results later; a definite benefit. On the other hand, the immediate result of putting too much academic pressure on young children can be costly indeed.
"Current pressure to teach literacy and math skills that used to be introduced in first or second grade has turned kindergarten into a highly structured and regimental ordeal in which the first lesson many children learn is that they're not good enough." (from Crisis in the Kindergarten pg 16)
I would take this a step farther and say it isn't just kindergarten that is suffering from this fate, but preschool and the early elementary grades as well.
I've heard parents extol the virtues of a preschool that "gives the kids lots of time to play".
Lots of time to play?
What else should they be doing when they're four?
And shouldn't a seven or eight year old also have plenty of time in his day for unstructured, creative play?
Yes, he should!
Because unstructured time means time to make elaborate yarn sculptures (in their underwear)
to fashion fantastic pirate costumes
and to build miniature forts and stage elaborate battles.
It is easy to get caught up with the idea of giving our kids a step up.
So many of us have fallen prey to the idea that our kids need to learn more and learn earlier.
They need more classes, more stimulus, more educational "tools".
How many of us bought those Baby Einstein videos for our kids?
People sign their one-year-olds up for art classes.
News flash: your one year old doesn't need to take an art class.
I know, I've been there.
I wanted my kid to be the best.
I wanted him to read early, to learn Latin and be doing long division in first grade.
But when I stepped back and asked myself why, I realized it was mostly about me.
My dreams of being the best being played out through my children.
And if I fill my children's day up with classes, worksheets, preparing for tests so they can reach the next reading level, with karate, soccer, tuba, tap and computer programing, I might not be allowing them the time they need to just play.
And so, seven years into this role of parenting, my priorities have changed.
More than anything else, I want my children to love to learn.
A love of learning will take them farther in life than knowing how to read at age four.
Or learning long division in first grade.
But, when the time is right, they might want to learn those things, or even Latin, because I am doing my best to facilitate an environment where we all love to learn.
Hours spent doing seat work won't facilitate that.
Right now they need minutes of academics.
Fifteen minute reading lessons.
Or reading the back of the cereal box at breakfast.
Twenty minute math lessons.
Or figuring out how many hours and minutes until lunch time.
In a few short years, much more will be required of them academically speaking.
They will be putting in hours then.
But right now, we're still putting more hours into our play.
I beam, and then cringe when read about this outcome: "the key to developing literacy--and all other skills--is to pace the learning so that it is consistent with the child's development, enabling him or her to succeed at the early stages. Ensure initial success and the child's natural love of learning blooms. Doom him to failure at the beginning by making inappropriate demands and he may well be unable to overcome the resulting sense of inadequacy." (from Crisis in Kindergarten pg 16)
It's what I want and don't want.
Contrast that feeling of inadequacy with the feelings of delight and success a child feels when given the opportunity to make his imaginings a reality.
He dreams of a boat and makes it.
Now if you think that all this is a bit much, that I can't really expect that kids have more play time and less academic time because, after all, how will they make it to college and succeed in the REAL WORLD?
I give you this last bit of research.
"Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind, writes about the "imagination economy" and says that people have to be able to do something that can't be outsourced, something that's hard to automate and that delivers on the growing demand for non-material things like stories and design. Typically these are things we associate with the right side of the brain, with artistic and empathetic and playful sorts of abilities. How can we expect our children to thrive in the imagination economy of the future if we deny them opportunities for play and creativity?" (from Crisis in the Kindergarten pg 12)
So, where does this leave us?
I think the answer is clear.
Give them time to play.
Give them resources.
Give them yarn.
Give them tape
and give them space to make something with it all.
Like a giant spider web.
Give them hats and tools and light sabers to take them off to imaginary worlds.
Give them a place to create masterpieces.
and the minutes, or hours, they need to execute those masterpieces.
Granted, my kids have an advantage.
They're home schooled.
Extra time to play is naturally built into our day.
We have more time than most.
After all, it takes a lot less time to do lessons with two or three children than with twenty or thirty.
But home schooling might not be an option for you.
Or of any interest to you.
Still, your child needs to play.
So give him time.
However you can find it, one less afternoon activity, one less chunk of time with a video game or a new work space to inspire him, just give him time.
You never know what kind of magic he'll make.
*If you are interested in the whole document, here is the link to the Alliance For Children website. Scroll down the page and you'll find the Crisis in Kindergarten.
*If you don't feel up to wading through 70 pages of research, here is another article on the same subject. It is an honest and well written article by a mom whose daughter is in traditional school and her take on this subject.
*And lastly, an article about declining creativity in American children found here.
*If you're a teacher and you feel like I'm picking on you, rest assured, I'm not. I used to write my standards at the top of every lesson plan just like you probably do. I know there is only so much you can do.This is really about parents and how we let our kids spend their time--in school and out.