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by Dr. Brittney Schrick - August 4, 2020
Fred Rogers, more widely known as Mister Rogers, offered uncanny insight into the
lives and thoughts of children. One of his more well-known statements relates to childhood
"Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But to a
child, play is serious. Play is really the work of childhood." --Fred Rogers
Sometimes, parents may forget that playing is not a waste of time. Our busyness often
tricks us into believing that any time spent in unstructured play is not useful or
helpful. Not only is that a myth, it is a potentially damaging stance to take with
young children. Play is crucial to healthy child development, and unstructured play
is far from wasteful. Children are inherently curious and compelled to explore their
surroundings. While this might be exhausting to the parent of a toddler or preschooler,
it is necessary for the brain. Important cognitive, social, and emotional needs are
being met by unstructured and uninterrupted play. When parents interfere or facilitate
things that a child can do for her/himself, they inhibit the learning process. Many
of the tendencies modern parents show toward interfering in play fall under the term
"over-parenting" or "helicopter parenting."
It is perfectly normal and understandable to want to help children in our care succeed.
We also have ideas about how things should go and how they should be accomplished.
When we see a child struggling to complete a task or completing it in, what we see
as, an inefficient way, we may be compelled to step in and help. Unless your child
asks for help or they are in danger of harming themselves or others, let them fumble
with the task. If they ask for help, only offer the amount of help needed to get them to the point
where they can do it alone. For example, if a child is trying to get a cup of milk, instead of getting the cup
and filling it yourself, let them get their own cup and, depending on the weight of
the milk carton, either lift it and let them guide it or let them pour while holding
the cup steady. You will show confidence that your child can succeed, and your child will feel far
more accomplished and independent. Children of parents who do things for them that they could do alone tend to show
less self-confidence and more permission-seeking behavior. The hardest part of this
is allowing children to make mistakes. Although it is difficult to watch your child
fail, it is an important part of their development.
In the age of Pinterest and other social media outlets, it is common to want to make
moments spent with our children into special times. We pack in activities and we want
to make sure they are learning every minute. We hope that by giving them these activities,
they won't get bored. In reality, we are probably doing more harm than good in giving
our children too much adult-led playtime. When we offer our children structured activities
and limit their free-play time, we unintentionally limit their creativity and interfere
with their ability to self-govern. Kids who aren't allowed creative, child-directed
playtime (even if that time is spent with a parent) tend to be easily bored and have
difficulty coming up with things to do on their own. Why? Because they are used to
an adult telling them what to do next. Allowing your child to play alone or with other children without the interference
of an adult is how they learn to problem-solve and create. So, while we think we're keeping them from boredom, we're actually causing it.
We've already covered helping children who can do things alone, but a related issue
is stepping in to offer guidance when your child already has a plan. Many of us have
experienced this sort of thing while trying to help a child with homework. You know
how to complete the problem. You see them doing it "wrong." You attempt to save them
by telling them how to do it. Another common example is the class project. You have
an idea. Your child has an idea. You try to force your idea when your child really
wants to do theirs. If your child is working on a project, and they have a plan, let them have it. Again, unless they are in danger of hurting themselves or someone else, let them
have it. It's ok if their Valentines Day box isn't the most spectacular in the class.
If they want to make it themselves, give them that chance. They will probably smile
just as widely in the class picture as the kids whose parents did the entire project
without them. Let them guide you rather than the other way around. Allowing your child the room to be creative and to follow through with plans boosts
self-confidence and leadership skills.
Parents and kids are busier than ever before, and much of that busyness is of our
own making. If you have the means to offer your children opportunities for extra curricular
activities, and the child wants to participate, sometimes it is hard to say no. However,
what ends up happening, especially in families with multiple children, is an unnecessarily
high level of stress in maintaining that busy schedule. If you have three children
and each of them is in two activities, when does anyone get a chance to slow down?
Yes, choosing between activities can be difficult, but giving kids unstructured time and families time to rest is extremely important. Learning to make choices and to say "No" early in life can help your child maintain
their sense of independence and confidence.
It is a dangerous myth that learning is separate from play. When children play and interact with their surroundings, they learn. They learn how people and objects behave. They learn how their bodies work. They
learn physics, psychology, engineering, biology, botany, music, art, dance, theater,
conflict resolution, emotion regulation, relationship management, and innumerable
other things that help them interact successfully in the world. By assuming that play
is frivolous and learning is important and those things are separate, we are not only
doing a disservice to kids, we are making our jobs as parents and teachers harder.
Yes, parents are the adults. We know best. We have been where our children are, and
we want them to make it through life without the scrapes and bumps we had. The problem
with that notion is that the scrapes and bumps are what made us the adults we are.
Without them, we would be different. When we attempt to help our children avoid mistakes
we made, we don't let them make their own mistakes. As parents, the best thing we
can do moving forward is to let our kids be little. Don't feel the need to rush in
and rescue at every turn. Children need structure, true, but not all the time, and
not in every aspect of their lives. Self-confidence and self-worth are built on feeling
that you can accomplish what you set out to do. Give your children the opportunity
to build those qualities.
Let them explore and understand. Let them fall down and get back up. Let them play
and run and jump and be bored. They need to play on their own. They need to play when
an adult is not telling them what to do and what not to do. They need to make up silly
games and giggle and skip. They need to draw funny pictures and run as fast as they
can. They need to scrape their knees and bump their heads. They need to feel the consequences
of a poor decision. They need to get frustrated and succeed. They need love and support
without smothering and second-guessing. Kids and adults will be better-off for it.
Seeing Play through the Eyes of a Child
Visit our page See the World through My Eyes
Download the PDF The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong
Senior, J. (2014). All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. Harper Collins:
Film: Lost Adventures of Childhood (Harper)--Available on YouTube