17 februari 2014 – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/mother-tongue/10636731/Half-term-school-holidays-Want-your-child-to-be-a-success-Quit-scheduling-and-let-them-play.html
Want your child to be a success? Quit scheduling and let them play freely
At the start of February half-term, Dr David Whitebread explains the science behind free play and why parents must give children the chance to choose the pastimes they’re interested in
By Dr David Whitebread, Senior Lecturer in the Psychology of Education at Cambridge University.
11:20AM GMT 17 Feb 2014
February half-term is upon us. Whether you love it or hate it, for some, it’s a week of scheduling, plotting, arranging and planning that feels more like a half-term headache.
Part of the issue lies with societal expectations of what it means to spend time with our children. On the one hand, we’re worrying about lining up an ever costly pile of activities to keep our children busy, on the other hand, we’re beating ourselves up about overuse of iPads and computer games.
But while organised play is important, it potentially neglects broader play experiences. Our growing understanding of the developmental purpose of play is challenging modern practices and perhaps misconceptions about what works best for children. Finding the key to this balance has an added imperative when you consider that scientists today have found strong links between children’s playfulness and their intellectual growth and emotional wellbeing.
Play does not have to be costly, nor does it have to be organised. Early education in nurseries and primary school has become much more structured and formalised – 30 years ago it was all about play.
The Tiger Parent society we live in often means parents feel a pressure to constantly keep their children occupied, but it’s important that time is found in the week to give children free reign to play and choose the play they’re interested in. You can’t hothouse children and force them to have certain interests. Trying to do so could be counter-productive.
Original tiger mum Amy Chua with her two daughters
The current generation of parents is so concerned about letting their children out unguarded that they restrict children too much, preventing them from learning to be independent. Children learn through risk and those that are deprived of nature and the opportunity for “risky play” – like climbing in trees, building dens and playing in rivers – miss opportunities to learn to assess what’s risky and, if necessary, deal with the consequences.
British culture is currently quite risk-averse, and so children are heavily supervised, playing indoors, in their gardens, and in specially designed play spaces with safety surfaces. In the more rural and thinly populated Scandinavian countries, however, children are much more encouraged to play outdoors and in natural surroundings, and are far less closely supervised.
A report written for the UK National Trust cites evidence that the area where children are allowed to range unsupervised around their homes has shrunk by 90 per cent since the Seventies. At the same time, in Britain and many other countries, rates of obesity, self-harm and mental health disorders diagnosed in children have climbed significantly. This is attributed to a now well recognised phenomena of nature deficit disorder, arising from children having very limited access to the outdoors and natural environments.
I remember as a child myself, when it was the school holidays, being sent off in the morning with a lunch box and a bottle of juice, and being told to be home for tea. I played all day outdoors with the local kids from the estate, in the park or in a local field, and learnt to be resilient, to get on with others, and to think for myself.
One of the great things about play is that it is in everyone’s interest to make it work. So, whatever the game, it’s no fun if everyone is not enjoying it or can’t participate. This makes group free play a wonderful context for learning about solving social problems, compromising, considering other’s needs, being sensitive to others and learning to negotiate – all valuable skills for life. This can’t happen if adults are present and sort out any difficulties or disagreements.
It doesn’t have to be clever, it doesn’t have to be complex, you just need to enjoy it. Play with your children, doing something that gives you genuine enjoyment. That enjoyment is infectious and creates the right, emotionally warm environment for play and development. Make sure the time you spend with your kids is quality time for you both. Scientists have shown that as well as finding ways to offer your child a variety of play experiences, your attitudes and approaches to play are just as important.
So take a subject that you love, and think about how you can get your children engaged. Both parents and children alike can get hours of fun and laughter from simply engaging in a bit of rough and tumble, but actually this aspect of play is incredibly beneficial for children. Physical play (such as running, climbing and gymnastics) helps a child develop their whole body and hand-eye co-ordination and is important in building strength and endurance. But it also provides a crucial means for children to develop their emotional intelligence. Rough and tumble with friends and family creates strong emotional bonds, and expressive awareness. Through this type of interaction, children learn to be sensitive to others, and begin to establish their limits.
A study in the US, for example, looked at how often a test group of fathers and sons used this type of play and the benefits that resulted. They found a strong correlation between boys who regularly played rough and tumble games with their fathers and their own social competence at pre-school.
A number of research studies have also shown that the main characteristic of family life which is damaging to educational success and emotional well-being is stress. Parents get stressed through poverty and related difficulties, of course, but also through feeling that their children’s every waking moment has to be organised and with a clear, educational purpose. What is much more important, however, is to have fun with your children. Contrary to some popular beliefs, some quite serious scientific research has shown that being in a family that has fun is a better predictor of school outcomes than early reading abilities.
When my children were at school, some of our friends were quite shocked when I revealed that I had no idea what homework the girls were supposed to be doing. Many of the other parents monitored homework like hawks and completely stressed out themselves and the children if everything wasn’t done perfectly and on time. Yet the research evidence again is quite clear on this, that what they were doing is completely counter-productive. Numerous studies have shown that doing homework is completely unrelated to educational success and all that our friends were likely to achieve by excessive pressure on their children was to demotivate them and to encourage negative attitudes to school and learning.
We often feel as parents that we have to supervise our children but the value of independent play has been shown to be absolutely key in development. It’s also important for children to learn to play among different age groups too.
Scientists have examined how children play in hunter gatherer societies that remain in the world today, and they play all the time, imitating adults, without adult support. They’ve found a lot of positive things from this in terms of how that child is able to prepare for the adult world. If you don’t allow them to have sufficient autonomy to develop the skills of independence and resilience, you are not arming them with the tools they need for the future.
Socialising in mixed age groups is an important part of child development, and something that parents can influence. Few of us feel a part of a community today, and with smaller nuclear families and other relatives living further apart, your child might have less access to children of different ages. And if your child goes to a professional childcare setting, they may be restricted in the age groups they can mix with too.
In mixed age group play, younger children naturally learn skills from the older kids as a form of mimicry, as well as having the opportunity to face the challenge of interacting with an older audience. Older children also benefit too by learning important skills around taking responsibility for younger children.
So don’t cancel that lunch date with friends who have teenagers – give children the opportunity to reach out to each other and find their own ways of communicating.
Play: the general rules
– The key, as with all things, is balance and moderation. Too much tech time, for example, obviously prevents your child from doing the range of other activities that is beneficial to them.
– Try and be open to giving your children the widest range of experiences. Consider settings which don’t have set or prescribed tasks and discover: a wood, the beach, for example. Make-up your fun from the resources in nature.
– Give children as much autonomy as you can. Allow them to take risks. Let them get dirty! They need to work out the rules of the world and boundaries, without you taking over.
Dr Whitebread, author of ‘Developmental Psychology & Early Childhood Education’ (2013) , is a senior lecturer in the Psychology of Education at Cambridge University.
He is supporting National Science and Engineering Week (March 14-23, which aims to raise awareness of the important role science has in many aspects of our lives. Adults and children alike can attend free events across the UK in a range of fun environments during the week. To find out about these events and how you can take part, visit this site.