In the Introduction, we broached the idea that the way other cultures parent might be more “right” than the way that the culture in North America parents, as discussed in the book Parenting Without Borders. In Part 1, we looked at some of the different cultural thoughts around sleep. There was also that stunning example of how it’s normal for babies in Scandinavia to be found taking a nap on the terrace in the dead of winter! In Part 2, we explored “stuff” and how having more of it might not be best for our children. In Part 3, we looked at how different cultures relate to food in the context of parenting. In Part 4, we looked at how saying “good job” to our little ones might not have the effect we think it does. In Part 5, we talked about the virtues of allowing our little ones the space to work through problems on their own. In Part 6, we’ll look at the importance of unstructured “play.”
There’s an epidemic of overscheduling kids in the US and it’s negatively affecting development. You’ve probably heard or seen the stereotype: afterschool, little Johnny is off to baseball practice on Mondays, piano practice on Tuesdays, swimming on Wednesday, every other Thursday is Boy Scouts, and on Friday, the family goes to the cottage (when there aren’t piano recitals, baseball games, or swimming tests on the weekends). Oh, there’s also little Julie who has all of her extracurricular activities afterschool, too. Don’t get me wrong, certainly those activities will be helpful in little Johnny or little Julia’s development (within those activities), but they will be harmful in other ways.
All of the activities I mentioned above are structured activities. Meaning, there are clear and set boundaries and defined outcomes contained within. Kids will certainly learn from these kinds of activities, but they are being robbed of the importance and value of unstructured play. From the book:
One survey found that 79% of middle and high school students participate in some sort of activities during the weekdays or on the weekends; 57% have an extracurricular activity every day or almost every day. As scheduled activities have increased, the amount of outdoor time children enjoy has plummeted. Today, the average American child is spending only between four and seven [!] minutes in unstructured outdoor play.
It looks like it’s implied in the passage that this is daily play (but it doesn’t specify). Four to seven minutes — are you kidding me? That’s the amount of time we’re supposed to be spending brushing our teeth everyday (three times a day, at least two minutes each). How the heck is an imagination supposed to develop in only 5 minutes a day?
Oh, I guess I didn’t tell you about that yet, did I:
Childhood play is how kids construct meaning and make sense of the world when they are little, and discover what they love as they grow. Play is a springboard for creativity: as kids pretend and make up their own games, they create possibilities out of thin air. Pretend play is an especially crucial way to hone human intelligence because of how it enables kids to envision possibilities.
So I say again, how is an imagination supposed to keenly develop in 5 minutes a day?
In this chapter, Gross-Loh also tries to draw connections to the rise in childhood obesity and increase in the use of antidepressants in American children. While those points are valid, I think the previous point — development of creativity — is a strong enough argument for more unstructured play all on its own. I mean, some parents often lament the shrinking amount of time spent on arts and physical education in schools. It turns out, children’s access to “arts” is probably getting a similar treatment (by having been overscheduled and given little time to develop their imagination).
It turns out that part of the shift to structured activities began in the ’80s and ’90s when the media alerted us to new research in brain development. However, as is often the case when it comes to the media reporting on scientific research, there was a disconnect between what the research actually said and what was expressed in the news. The message from the research was mainly geared to “disadvantaged children” (about the importance of those earlier years) and then the message became co-opted such that all parents thought it was important to focus on those early years. As it happens, this may be to the detriment of children:
Researchers found that early-learning centers, which promise to give infants, toddlers, and preschoolers an academic head start, produced children who eventually had more difficulty: anxiety about tests, lowered creativity, and less of a liking for academics. Many studies show that “artificial stimulation” — early learning that is developmentally inappropriate — can be counterproductive and even hinder children’s development. One well-known study showed that the more babies watched educational baby videos, the more their vocabulary dropped.
There are also myriad behavioural issues that can develop by trying to force this early learning on kids (and we wonder why there’s been an explosion in the diagnosis of kids with ADD or ADHD?). There’s probably a number of reasons for the higher frequency in that diagnosis, but I suspect that the pressures felt by parents to force their kids into environments that will foster behavioural issues is a factor.
I’m already close to 1000 words and I haven’t even talked about how the effects that overscheduling has on a child’s ability to figure out what they’re passionate about (how can you figure out with you like when you’re always being shuttled from activity to activity?) or how it’s important to intersperse physical activity with learning (breaks are essential to improving a person’s attention).
One of the main reasons that I chose to write about this book through a series was to make sure that I presented different perspectives, so I wanted to make sure that I offer a few examples of that before closing this post.
In Denmark, there’s a forest kindergarten for students between the ages of three and six. Gross-Loh shared a delightful anecdote about the kids wanting to go swimming in the sea (in the winter) and how the teacher didn’t tell them about how the water was frozen. Instead, the class all walked to the sea to learn that in the winter, the water is frozen and that when you break the ice and go in the water (yes, some of the kids put their feet/legs in), the water is extremely cold. A perfect quote from that story: “There is no such thing as bad weather. Only bad clothing.”
In Germany, they also have a forest school where it’s not only normal, but it’s encouraged for kids of different ages to be playing together (just like we learned in Japan in previous chapters).
And let’s leave the last word to Gross-Loh:
The children spend “off task” — time that might seem idle and wasted — is often full of interior richness. Children are doing exactly what they should be doing. The benefits of play seem, to me, to be as crucial for our kids’ futures as anything we enroll them in, because through play, they internalize a valuable lifelong attitude: the idea that they have the power to make something of their own lives, and that they can create so much out of so little.