It is almost time for school to start again and many parents are wondering what they can do to best prepare their kids for school. Believe it or not, one of the best way to get a child ready for school is to give them plenty of unstructured play time outdoors. Sounds a little counter intuitive doesn’t it? But its true. However, there’s good news and bad news. Bad news first: Children are playing less and less which is impacting their long term success. Good news: We can do something about it!
What's behind the decrease in play?
Pressure on academics has caused many parents to put their young children in preschools where play has become “institutionalized.” Whereas kids used to have large blocks of free play, they now are more focused on seat-work types of activities. Self-directed play is only promoted when activities seen as more important are complete (Hewes, 2010). Kindergartens are pushing handwriting and reading before children are developmentally ready. Even when children reach elementary school age, playtime during school is at an absolute minimum. More than 30,000 schools in the United States have eliminated recess to make room for academics (Elkind, 2008). The decline in play is seen at home, as well as, at school. A University of Maryland study showed time spent outdoors decreased by 50% between 1997 and 2006. Time spent on passive leisure activities each week increased from 30 minutes to 3 hours (Hofferth, 2009).
What happens when kids don't get enough play?
A lack of adequate play time is not without consequences. One interesting study in Germany in the 1970’s, compared children in a play-based kindergarten to children in a cognitive-based (teacher-directed) kindergarten. The long term benefits showed that participants in play-based kindergartens excelled in all 17 measures, including reading, mathematics, creativity, and social and emotional skills (Darling-Hammond and Snyder as cited in Almon, Carlsson-Paige and McLaughlin, 2015). The HighScope Preschool Comparison Curriculum study had equally dramatic results. When a group of high risk children were taught in play-based versus cognitive based preschools, they were 41% less likely to require special education services over time. Pediatric therapists are seeing the effects in their clinics. One child counselor shared with me that she is treating children with anxiety problems as young as 4 years old. More and more children require occupational therapy services. Author and occupational therapist, Angela Hanscom says this is “due in part to underdeveloped motor and sensory skills, which leave children underprepared for academics, overwhelmed by daily life and social situations.” (Hanscom, 2016, p. 3).This manifests itself in classroom behaviors, such as, clumsiness, inattentiveness, bullying, and anxiety.
Play- Not paperwork!
What comes to mind when you hear reading, writing and arithmetic? Mostly likely, it is things like pencil and paper, phonics and worksheets. Prior to any of these things, children need to have the developmental building blocks to set a strong foundation for learning. For example, sensory integration is needed for a child to process all the incoming sensory information they receive from their environment. In a normally developing child, this happens through movement and exploration (Hanscom, 2016). If a child is lacking in playtime, problems arise down the road. Play not only enhances sensory development, but enhances reading, writing, math skills and creativity. For example, successful handwriting is based on many underlying skills: visual/motor perception, cognition, posture, social, fine motor and attention (Pape, 2004). As a young child plays outside, all these skills are addressed. Picture a child outside with several other children from the neighborhood. As they climb, run and engage in imaginary play, it stimulates the mind and the body. The American Academy of Pediatrics(Ginsburg 2007) documents that play increases brain growth, in addition to improving behavior.
What can you do?
Enough Background! - I know you want to know what you can DO about it! The key is giving your children the time and the space to play. Don’t overschedule and don’t over plan. They need to engage in good old fashioned play. They don’t need fancy equipment or expensive toys. Enrich their experience with stories, music, nature exploration and hands on activities.They will take it from there. Open-ended play is best. Toys based on movie characters or tv shows limit creativity. “Almost anything becomes a good toy in the hands of a playful child” (Almon, 2013). Stand back and, as much as possible, don’t intervene. Give children space to come up with their own schemes. You may be initially apprehensive, thinking it will be unsafe, chaotic or boring. Many great ideas are born out of boredom! Think of yourself as a supervisor rather than enforcer or instructor. When parents and caregivers try to control play they limit learning opportunities. As children figure things out on their own, they become strong and confident.
Provide opportunities for climbing, spinning and carrying heavy loads. These all build strength and help encourage healthy sensory integration. Think: Trees to climb, swings, logs to walk and balance on, hammocks, buckets. Balance and posture all stem from a strong core. Remember that balance and posture are a key skill for writing.
Provide access to loose parts - Loose parts are materials that can be used and manipulated in many ways. They can be used over and over in a myriad of different ways. Think: Sticks, pine cones, shells, PVC pipes, ropes, rocks, scrap lumber, pieces of fabric are just a few examples. Kids as young as 4 or 5 can handle hammers and nails if given basic safety instructions. Check out the book Loose parts for more ideas. Parts that make up a pirate ship one day can become a hobbit village, or vegetable stand on another. New games will arise.
For more ideas about loose parts, check out my pinterest board.
Promote sensory input. Think: mud play, water play, sand, pebbles, walking barefoot, sticks and buckets.
Promote imagination and creativity. Think: Dress-up, fabric, tarps, wood coins.
Sit back and watch. You will be amazed at how your kids will become creative problem solvers, becoming stronger and more confident. As they get lost in their imaginary worlds, their attention is focused and they are lost in time.
For more detailed information on how outdoor play is beneficial to children pick up a copy of Angela Hanscom’s book, Balanced and Barefoot. I highly recommend it!! It will bring a new understanding to the skills your child is learning as they play outside.
If you decide to purchase this book, I would appreciate it, if you purchased it through the above link to help offset the cost of my blog.Thanks!
For references used in this blog click here
Let Them Play!!
Hi! I'm Ann - mother of seven, grandmother of two and occupational therapist. My mission is to provide the support families need to raise thriving children and to help you build a family environment that supports healthy development and a pathway to success.
Great blogs to check out:
Rain or Shine Mamma
Children & Nature Network
Follow us on Instagram