With the intense focus on standardized testing these days, opportunities for school children to play are becoming few and far between. Many schools are limiting time for physical activities, such as gym class and recess, in addition to creative activities, including not only art and music, but science as well. One recent study at the University of Virginia found that kindergarten teachers spent as much time on reading lessons as they did on math, science, social studies, art and music combined!
We know that the opportunity to play is essential to a child’s development. Play teaches our children about social relationships, creativity, strategic thinking, problem solving, and much more. Through play, our children improve their motor skills, explore adult roles, invent new ideas, learn to work with their peers, and relieve stress. Another recent study showed that children who learned to read early had no advantage over children who learned to read later when both were compared later in childhood, and in fact, children who read later had better comprehension specifically because their opportunities for more play improved their language development.
Interestingly, very bright children are often assumed to need less playtime, as their focus on academic subjects makes them appear less lighthearted. Many bright children are also introverts, which makes it harder for them to reach out and join other children in play. In fact, academically advanced children need play even more play than other children, for several reasons.
Smart children flourish when they have a chance to be creative. While classroom creativity is a welcome change from rote memorization, creativity during play is preferable, owing to the absence of rules and pressure to perform. Allowing a child to be creative during play helps immeasurably to set their imaginations free and let them develop without anxiety.
Bright and introverted children need extra opportunities to learn to interact with their peers. Many gifted children search for friends of the same mental age and can’t find any. Learning to collaborate with all kinds of other children takes practice, and it is through play that this is most enjoyable.
Children thrive when they can enjoy a sense of mastery over something difficult. In the classroom, academic challenges may be too easy for clever children, but on the baseball field, or in other areas of play, many levels of difficulty can be found and conquered – even in fantasy worlds made of slippery spies and suspect wizards.
One of the most under-rated benefits of playtime is its importance in stress-reduction. Children today are under much more stress than children in times past, whether it be from increased expectations in the classroom, a rushed lifestyle, or the breakdown of the nuclear family. Giving free playtime priority over scheduled enrichment or lessons allows children a necessary outlet for their anxiety, whatever its source. In addition, children can actually work through specific problems through play, as they try out various solutions in a risk-free setting.
With all of these benefits going for it, free playtime must be given a more robust place in our children’s days.