|Source: Joel deWaard|
By Sam Piha
There is an inscription over a public school in northern Washington state that reads “Waste Not Thy Hour”. It reminds me of how young people’s play is often regarded as a waste. For many, play is the antithesis of learning time, however, there is growing evidence that there is a great deal of learning in play.
In an age of standardized testing and intense academic competition, it’s easy to believe that play is one more thing American children will have to do without. But free play encourages the development of the two skills that no robot can replace: creativity and teamwork. -The Secret Power of Play; Bethan Mooney for TIME (1)Now is the time to reexamine the value of play, educate our stakeholders, and be unashamed to make play an important part of our afterschool programs. In this post we open the door to this reexamination by offering some information and definitions of terms you may find as you read about play. In a later blog post on play, we offer some additional information and resources to encourage a reexamination of play.
Many afterschool programs prioritize an extension of academics and homework completion over organized play, free play, and physical activity. - The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds (2)
The Move AWAY From Play
Over the years, there has been a pronounced reduction in the time that children spend in play. According to the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health (3), this is due to several factors:
- Child supervision: Fewer families have available adult supervision in the home during the workday, which makes it necessary for children to be in settings in which they can be monitored by adults throughout the day.
- Afterschool program changes: Many afterschool programs prioritize an extension of academics and homework completion over organized play, free play, and physical activity.
- Educational trends: There is a national trend to focus on the academic fundamentals of reading and arithmetic. This trend was spearheaded by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. One of the practical effects of the trend is decreased time left during the school day for other academic subjects, as well as recess, creative arts, and physical education. This trend may have implications for the social and emotional development of children and adolescents.
- Safety: In many communities, children cannot play safely outside of the home unless they are under close adult supervision and protection. This is particularly true in areas that are unsafe because of increased violence or other environmental dangers.
- Screentime: Children are increasingly being passively entertained through television or computer/video games.
- Super-achieving children: Parents receive messages that good parents actively build every skill and aptitude their child might need to become super-achieving children, and if their children are not well prepared and high-achieving, they will not get a desired spot in higher education.
There are many terms that one encounters when exploring the issues of play. Below are some definitions that may be helpful.
Characteristics of play (4)
- Active. During active play, children use their bodies and minds in play by interacting with the environment, materials and other people.
- Adventurous and risky. This type of play involves children exploring unknown or new concepts. When children engage in adventurous or risky pretend play, they are able to safely explore these concepts within the confines of a safety net.
- Communicative. Play presents a natural opportunity for children to share information and knowledge. Children can communicate verbally, using words or their bodies, postures and other non-verbal cues and these messages can be simple or more complicated.
- Enjoyable. Simply put, play is fun! When children play they should be enjoying themselves and they can often find excitement and humor in or through their play. If they aren’t having fun, it probably isn’t play. Instead of playing to win, children should be playing to play and have fun!
- Involved. Remember that play is a child’s work, and just like adults need to concentrate while working, children should concentrate during their play also. Children might become very involved while playing as they are actively thinking about what they are doing.
- Meaningful. Play provides opportunities for children to make sense of their world. Through play, children process the things they have seen and heard, what they know and what they don’t yet know. These experiences help children build upon their current knowledge, test out new theories and roles and grow their knowledge, understanding and skills.
- Sociable and interactive. While it is healthy and necessary for children to play independently, at least some of the time, play presents a unique and formative opportunity for children to engage in social interactions and build relationships with other children and adults.
- Symbolic. Children are able to test out roles, feelings, behaviors and relationships, replay things that have already happened in order to make sense of them. Symbolic play may just look like pretending, but it is actually laying the foundation for understanding of themselves and the larger world.
- Therapeutic. When play is fun, engaging and meaningful, it can be very therapeutic for children. Play can be a natural way for children to relieve stress and work through different emotions and experiences.
- Voluntary. Play is a self-chosen, spontaneous pursuit that children can change, alter and manipulate freely. Children should and will change the story, characters, materials, events, locations and purpose of their play at will.
Unstructured play is open-ended play that has no specific learning objective. Unstructured play is often informally referred to as simply "letting kids be kids" or "just play." At times, you may also hear it called "free play" or “self-play."(5)
Unstructured play doesn't usually have any rules or instructions, and the possibilities tend to be unlimited! (6)
Free play is unstructured, voluntary, child-initiated activity that allows children to develop their imaginations while exploring and experiencing the world around them. It is the spontaneous play that comes naturally from children's natural curiosity, love of discovery, and enthusiasm. (7)
Structured play is any type of activity that has a set of rules or instructions with a goal. For example, most games, puzzles, construction toys and organized sports are structured activities (8)
Organized play is ordered, overseen by rules, and managed or directed by another person. (9)
Source: Lapin Yliopisto University of Lapland