Thanks to excessive competition, academic pressure and addiction to screens, most children are now deprived of free play, where they can just explore without having to follow any rules. Experts have time and again emphasised on the importance of free play for kids for not just their physical but mental well-being as well. Free play is no waste of time; in fact, parents should allow their kids to play more to help them excel, Dr Peter Gray, research professor of psychology, Boston College, suggested while speaking at the International Teacher’s Summit on Early Years (ISEY) in Bangalore, by KLAY. Express Parenting got in touch with Dr Gray to know how play can boost kids’ mental growth and protect them from mental health problems.
Excerpts from the conversation:
How is play connected to a child’s mental growth?
Adults should understand that though they think of educating children a certain way, children usually learn by observing their surroundings and explore the world on their own. Children learn by watching people and generally learn life skills while playing as the ultimate goal of childhood is becoming independent. Unfortunately, we shut off the curiosity in children and tell them how to play, how to sit and how to study and so on. Children are designed to play, run and jump in their own way and if we deprive them of natural play than we deprive them of developing their physical bodies and reaping benefits of natural play.
A lot of research shows if children are given training in pre-schools, they score more in first grade. However, by fourth grade, those children who receive no training in the initial years start to score higher. People only pay attention to short-term study.
What kind of play should kids engage in?
We use the word ‘play’ often but we are not sure of its real meaning. The more you think about play the more you realise there are certain paradox. We must remember:
Play is spontaneous and it always has rules: Play is structured by the child and it is indeed how children learn to follow rules and create rules and understand meaning of rules. From a biological perspective, play is a way of showing that children understand life skills and the way of living life by becoming happy and productive adults.
So, what do you mean by play? An activity is play to some degree but not fully play until it is:
Self-chosen and self-directed: We are in the world where adults intervene in everything that the child does but for a play to be true it has to be self-chosen and self-directed by the child without any restriction and direction from the adult. Play helps kids to socialise, make their rules, negotiate with the partner, freedom to quit, discover and find their passion. It should be not connected to any price or reward. Adults add rewards to the play and that can undermine play and the benefits of natural play.
Guided by natural rules: Play must be guided by natural rules as it involves some element of imagination and not guided by forced rules from adults.
Play is trivial but it is not easy: Play is trivial but that doesn’t mean it is unimportant. Giving opportunity to practice skills, children do the same things again and again so that’s the evidence that they learn to practice. Play raises the level of creativity and when children play on their own, they learn life skills.
Is lack of play affecting kids’ mental health?
I can definitely share a global perspective with you. In the United States, there has been an increase in mental health problems among children including depression, anxiety and even increase in the number of suicides among children. This is very concerning, and parents are becoming aware of this problem. Many research papers have suggested that the burden of modern schooling hinders the way children are designed to play and therefore young children are suffering from stress due to academic training.
There are girl children in the country who are discouraged from playing outdoors after a certain age (pre-teens and teens) with boys. How can that affect kids?
Most of the learning happen when kids mingle with children of other age and gender. Younger children learn from older children and vice versa. When children play across age and gender, they tend to learn much more meaningful life-skills including negotiation and freedom to quit. The idea of segregating children on the basis of age and gender is a modern idea and provides less opportunity for children to grow and learn life-skills.
Advice for parents?
We look at play traditionally as a recess, but it is far more than that and is crucial in a child’s overall development. Play raises the level of creativity as it involves some element of imagination. Academic training should never be an excuse to not let children play as it takes away their opportunity to learn from self-chosen and self-directed play.