Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Art and Practice of Play
by Stephanie Rafanelli

4 year-old: So, what do you want to do?
10 year-old: I don’t know.
4 year-old: Well, you could be my dog.
10 year-old: Ok.
4 year-old: But this time, you have to behave.

If you live with a preschooler, play is probably the default activity in your home. Make believe, construction, water play and more are staples in our house, even for our thirteen and ten year-olds. Variations of the conversation above, one I overheard a few months ago, occur on a daily basis and the infectious enthusiasm of our youngest is nearly impossible to resist.

Assorted scholars define play differently. I am comfortable with this simple definition of play: play is any freely chosen and self-directed activity. Soccer practice, while hopefully fun, is not play. A neighborhood whiffle ball tournament with group-decided bases and imaginary all-star players is play.

While we live in an era in which play and free time have been marginalized, I am thrilled to see the increasing attention paid to the vital importance of play. Decades of research1 combined with new studies have confirmed the critical role of play in developing self-control, executive function skills, socio-emotional learning, problem solving, coordination, language processing . . . I could go on. Practicing the art of play is essential to becoming a highly functional human and a positive member of any community.

As a middle school educator, I find myself in conversations with parents who are convinced of the value of play, but are unsure what play might look like for a middle school student. As long as the activity is freely chosen and self-directed, it can be play. Here are a few ideas to help you foster your child’s practice of play:
  1. Schedule time for nothing. Put it on the family calendar. Try to schedule these times as often as possible.
  2. Model play. Read in front of your kids. Invent new recipes to test out. Daydream. Dance (full disclosure – this embarrasses my older two to no end). Write a story. Play word games. Take a walk without a destination.
  3. Have as many resources around as possible. Visit the library regularly to have a trove of good books lying about. Visit recycling areas to have affordable access to cardboard and building materials. Look for art store sales to stock up on any fun materials. Have a few big tubs or buckets. Keep discarded paper and a few old newspapers and magazines for building, folding, weaving, cutting, collaging, painting, etc.
  4. Be comfortable with “I’m bored.” This statement is wielded very effectively by some kids in search of defined structure, a quick treat, or what seems to be the common default – extra electronic media time. Acknowledge your child’s statement and ask if they would like you to make some suggestions or if they want to come up with ideas on their own.
  5. If they want some more specific suggestions, here are a few:
    • Create a script and make a movie, a commercial, a dance routine, a video letter to your future self, etc.
    • Be the chef tomorrow. Plan a menu, decide what ingredients need to be purchased, think about portions and a budget, decide if a sous chef is needed. If possible, figure out a way to get to a store on your own.
    • Invent an instrument and try to play a recognizable tune. Design a submarine that floats exactly in the center of a tub of water. Find some slime recipes (there are many), make a few, and compare. Try to combine two different objects and create a new item (further – create an advertising poster to sell the new invention).
    • Copy some old comic strips or cartoons and rewrite your own captions. Add new figures or erase parts of the original. Become a humor researcher – check some comic books out from the library and decide what parts are funny.
    • Play soccer with a tennis ball. Try to juggle it (soccer-style), catch it on the nape of your neck, control it accurately with your foot, and shoot at a mini target.
    • Draw, cartoon, paint, sculpt, create poetry, write. Compose a musical piece or craft a song or rap. Build, sand, and paint some wood.
  6. Pay attention. Catch your child being engaged in or excited about something. Then do what you can to create the time and tools for those explorations to continue. Without guidance.
With a little practice, we can all fall back into the magical – and essential – habit of playing.

1To read some of the research, I recommend the work of Marian Diamond, Alison Gopnik, Jaak Panksepp, Jane Myck-Wayne, Elena Bodrova with Deborah J. Leong, and Laura Schulz with Elizabeth Bonawitz. To read a good survey of the research on play, I recommend the aptly titled Play, by Dr. Stuart Brown.

Stephanie Rafanelli is both a school coach and a parent education facilitator for Challenge Success. Stephanie has been a middle school science and math teacher for nineteen years. In addition to almost two decades in the classroom, she has served as department chair, both academic and also grade level Dean, a parent and faculty educator, and a leader of curriculum reform. She has founded and run several summer and afterschool programs such as Sally Ride Science Camp for Girls and Menlo Summer Explorations. Stephanie is an educational consultant for multiple organizations. When she is not thinking about education, Stephanie is usually creating chaos with her three children.

Monday, July 9, 2012

by Madeline Levine, Ph.D.

Why it Pays to Play

If you’re like many parents, your child’s summer may already be booked up with “enriching activities.” Maybe you’re shipping her off to a rigorous math or computer camp designed to give her an academic edge. At the very least you’re using the break from school to double up on her (already daunting) schedule of gymnastics and dance classes, supplemented with an ambitious summer reading list.

I have a question though: When will your child have time to play? Just…play?

It’s too bad that the old-fashioned notion of summer as endless free time—to climb trees, chase fireflies, build a fort in the woods, maybe set up a lemonade stand—has fallen by the wayside. This is what kids need—they need it far more than they need a high-priced summer camp or some other program aimed at cramming a little bit more learning into their exhausted brains.

Play is serious business. We may see it as wasted time, but it’s actually anything but. Play is the work of childhood. It’s a classroom in which children develop a whole set of skills that really matter both in school and in life. Indeed, research shows that children who attend play-based preschools, as opposed to academic preschools, do significantly better in school down the line.

David Elkind, one of the country’s most knowledgeable (and beloved) experts on child development, says that “play is essential to positive human development.” He recognizes that there are different types of play: play that teaches children concepts and skills, play that initiates children into the world of peer relations, and play that helps kids develop strategies for dealing with stress.

What these variations on play have in common is that they are self-initiated and self-directed—the playing child is calling the shots.

If a child goes into his room and strums on his guitar because he loves it, that’s play. When an instructor comes into the picture and starts teaching guitar, the child may enjoy the experience but he’s far less likely to be playing because his attempts to improve are no longer self-directed.

If you really want to up the ante, consider that tomorrow’s adults may need the exact skills developed by play—creativity, innovation, collaboration, problem solving, and self-direction—more than any other generation before. The global economy demands them. This makes it even more ironic that time for free, unstructured, self-directed play is at an all-time low.

So what, exactly, is it that makes play so valuable? Here are some of the reasons:

It miniaturizes the world so that kids can deal with it. Watch your daughter play with the “family” in her dollhouse. She will set rules, enforce them and have siblings collaborate. While her older brothers may be intimidating to her, the miniature “siblings” are not. She has a chance to experiment with different ways of relating (being friends, bopping each other over the head) that will help her navigate the bigger world.

It teaches them how to handle stress and conflict. Consider the spats, arguments, and out-and-out fights kids get into when they’re playing with their friends. If they can’t resolve or at least smooth over their disagreements, then the game will grind to a halt—and that’s not good for anyone.

It’s a feast for the senses—and the senses are the vehicles for childhood learning. You can explain a concept to children all day and they won’t get it. But when they discover it themselves—by doing, not by listening to someone talk—that’s when the light bulb really comes on.

It gives kids a sense of power in a world in which they are essentially powerless. This is why kids love pretend dragon-slaying so much: they are helpless in the face of real-world “dragons” like parents, teachers, and other authority figures. Try to remember what it felt like to be small and powerless. Much of children’s fiction is based on this theme (think Dorothy and her shaking clan before the hidden Wizard of Oz).

It bridges the gap between imagination and creativity. All children are imaginative. Anyone who has ever seen a little girl wearing a white bathrobe and a towel draped over her head pretending she’s getting married or a little boy using a stick he found in the yard to cast wizard spells at the family dog has seen that imagination in action. Self-directed play cultivates that imagination into creativity.

It teaches us about ourselves. A sense of self must be shaped internally, not externally. Kids need to learn what they’re good at and not good at—what they like and don’t like—on their own rather than being told by parents, coaches, and instructors. This is why it’s so important to let our kids try out lots of different activities rather than immersing them full-time in one or two that you prefer.

It is this sense of self that provides a home base, a place to retreat to, throughout life. If they don’t have that they will be always looking for external direction and validation. Business leaders are saying that this constant looking outside for validation makes for workers who need too much time, resources and direction.