By Dr. William Satterwhite 

One of my deepest sorrows has been the gradual erosion of true “play” for children in the 21st century. People who grew up in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s spent large chunks of their childhoods playing make-believe games with their friends. Whether it was playing ‘house’ or pick-up baseball in the yard, the children set the rules, made the teams, and worked out their disagreements. By law in North Carolina, children didn’t have to start school until first grade, and many did not. For those who went, five year old kindergarten was a half-day, and its primary purpose was play. Reading and writing and sitting still were (and still are) six to seven year old skills. It was widely and accurately recognized that children learned by and through play.

By the mid-1990s and 2000s, things had dramatically shifted. Our society decided that unstructured play for children was a waste of time and that real learning only occurred in structured settings. Rote memorization of facts became more highly valued than learning through play and guided activities. Adding to the intensity of structured learning was the myth that parents are largely responsible for “sculpting” their children’s brains. Thus if you want to be a really good parent, you will engage your children in multiple structured activities in order to teach them as much as possible as early as possible.

Unfortunately, this new shift is both erroneous and harmful. Studies indicate that free play, such as make-believe, actually helps children develop a critical cognitive skill known as ‘executive function.’ Executive function includes the ability to plan things out, to self-regulate emotions and behaviors, and to resist impulses. Not only is poor self-regulation and executive function associated with high drop-out rates, drug use and crime, but these qualities are also better predictors of success in school than a child’s IQ. Furthermore, studies also show that children who spend more time in unstructured play are more creative, show more initiative, and have longer attention spans. (The more a child plays, the smarter she gets!)

Regrettably, research also supports that children cannot ‘attend’ to something or self-regulate like they used to be able to do. This should come as no surprise, given the dramatic increase in early, rote learning in schools and formal, planned activities that have supplanted playtime. In today’s world, everything is adult-planned and adult-monitored. Rarely do kids play pick-up games in the back yard, changing the rules to make the teams fair and working out their own conflicts (“Was the ball really out?” “Did she really get tagged?” “Should we change the teams to make it more even?”) Instead, we pay money and sign them up for sports and leagues where we push adult rules – complete with paid officials — down upon them, and then we WATCH their every play and even yell ‘advice’ at them from the sidelines. Even long care trips, when imagination (or reading or singing) was all one had to occupy a child, now are filled with watching DVDs. When do our children learn to think? When do they learn to work things out? Imagine? Invent? Pretend?

Fortunately, there is good news! The remedy is within reach! And it is easy, effective, and inexpensive: let your children play! Relax! Observe and enjoy the wonderful, creative, imaginative nature of your children! Notice that learning activities are everywhere: blocks, Lego, pots and pans, dolls, reading, making up games, and playing outside. Instead of scheduling all their free time, go to the park, or let them invite a friend over, and make them go outside for at least one hour straight. Take away their electronics for awhile; unplug the TV. Ignore the “competitive parent trap!” Don’t sign them up for competitive sports until they are eight years old. Stop any activity that isn’t completely FUN for your child to participate in. If she cries on the way to choir, gracefully stop. Remember that play equals learning, that it is not all up to you, and that parenting really can be fun when you relax and enjoy the wonder of a child. (Your kids will be smarter and happier as well!)