The Rich Benefits of Tree-Climbing, Firefly-Chasing and Unstructured Play

The Rich Benefits of Tree-Climbing, Firefly-Chasing, Unstructured Play (and Why Your Kids Need More of It This Summer)

If you’re like many parents, your childp’s summer may already be booked up with “enriching activities.” Maybe you’re shipping him off to a rigorous math or computer camp designed to give him an academic edge. Or perhaps she’ll be living at home but attending an educational day camp or an intensive sports camp. 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.

With so many structured activities planned this summer, Madeline Levine, PhD, has a question: When will your child have time to play? Just…play?

Play is serious business, insists Levine. We tend to 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 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.

So what, exactly, is it that makes play so valuable? Levine offers the following insights:

It miniaturizes the world so that kids can deal with it. Play primes children for learning. Toddlers, for instance, love to climb up and down stairs. This allows practice in reading visual cues—i.e., the height of each stair—that plain-old walking doesn’t provide. School-age children play games that have rules, which initiate them into the social institutions they’ll live and work in all their lives.

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. You can show them in a classroom laboratory, and, sure, they may “get it” on some level. But when they discover it themselves—by doing, not by listening to someone talk—ah, 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 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, says Levine. 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. Our sense of self must be shaped internally, not externally. We need to learn what we’re good at and not good at—what we like and don’t like—on our 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 (art, music, soccer, karate, gymnastics) rather than immersing them full-time in one or two that you prefer. It’s also why they need plenty of time not devoted to any structured activity at all.

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About the Author: Madeline Levine, PhD, is a clinician, consultant, and educator; the author of New York Times bestseller The Price of Privilege and Teach Your Children Well; and a cofounder of Challenge Success, a program founded at the Stanford School of Education that addresses education reform and student well-being. She lives outside San Francisco with her husband and is the proud mother of three newly minted adult sons.
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