Thursday, January 26, 2012

Kids as Advocates for Play

All month, I've been talking about the importance of play. And all month, my focus has been on what adults can do to protect and rescue kids' right to play. Well, yesterday my very own children reminded me not to underestimate the power of children.

My 11- and 8-yr-olds came home fired up. Outside recess had been cancelled -- AGAIN. (The kids said it was because the adults said the playground was too icy.) Now, I don't know how things were when you were a kid, but when I was a kid, even inside recess was active, at least most of the time. Sometimes we stayed in our classrooms and played board games, but most of the time, we were sent to the gym, where we could run around, play with balls and jump rope. Today? The kids get herded into the auditorium, not the gym, and it's all quiet play. They can walk around the auditorium, but that's about it.

So the kids started a petition. At school, at recess, they drafted a petition and began circling it among the students and teachers. At home, they refined it a bit. You should have seen those boys (two of mine, plus a friends from school!) debating word choice as they created their manifesto! This is what they ultimately wrote:

We have started a petition and we demand outside recess. We are sick of being inside all day long. All the grades that have recess demand for the right to be able to stay in or go out except for in extreme weather. For safety issues we request that you send home a permission slip and for those whose parents are not comfortable with this decision that way they can choose not to let their child/children have the choice.


Kids grades 3-6

I think they did a pretty good job of expressing their concerns and offering a solution. What do you think?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Protecting Play: In the Community

Play might be an internationally-recognized right of childhood, but as a society, we're not doing so well at protecting play. Consider:

The good news is that some parents, organizations and communities are taking steps to halt the march away from child-centered play. Concerned citizens and organizations are stepping up to help protect kids' right to play. Want to help? Here are some ways you can protect play:

  • Stay informed. Do you know what the recess policy is at your local school? If not, find out. Check the play policies at local child care centers as well. And keep up on the latest research about the benefits of play for children. If you're informed, you'll be in better shape to share information with local decision makers.
  • Join a play-supporting organization. A variety of local, national and international organizations now work to protect kids' right to play. Consider joining or financially supporting Right to Play, the American Association for Child's Right to Play and/or the Right to Recess campaign.
  • Plan a Play Day. The American Association for Child's Right to Play has directions on their website for interested individuals and organizations who want to organize a community Play Day to draw attention to the importance of play.
  • Volunteer as a recess monitor. Some schools have reduced or eliminated recess because there aren't enough staff to provide adequate supervision at recess time. Consider offering your services a few hours per week -- and play with the kids! If some kids seem to have trouble finding an activity, teach them Captain May I? or Red Rover, or start a game of Tag.
  • Become a play advocate. Speak up! If you're concerned about the amount of play at school, schedule a meeting with the principal. Listen to the school's concerns, but share yours as well. Be prepared to share information also. I sent my son's principal links to Playworks and Peaceful Playground's recess programs.
  • Talk to other parents. When I became concerned about the elimination of football at recess, I sent emails to other school parents (and I started with parents of kids' who played football in a local league). Alone, I won't accomplish much. But if I join together with other concerned parents, I increase the odds of the school revisiting the ban on football.
  • Involve kids. Kids know what they need to play. Consider working with kids and adults to improve play opportunities for children in your community. For a look at how one community in Ireland did just that, watch this video.
  • Buck the trend. Organized activities, such as sports and band, are great, but make sure that your kids have plenty of unstructured time as well. Sure, your kids might be the only ones on the block not in summer school, but that's OK. Protecting play begins at home.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Protecting Play: At Home

Kids come into the world with an innate need to learn, to understand and to create meaning, and for the first few years of their lives, play is the method by which they explore the world. We don't need to teach them how to play -- but we do need to step out of their way.

As we discussed earlier this month, adults often interfere with kids' play. Kids today are not getting enough physical activity because adults worry about their safety. Kids don't get to play football (and practice their social and problem solving skills) because adults worry about liability.

So let's talk solutions. Next week, we'll talk about how we, as parents, can advocate for change. This week, let's talk about ways to protect play at home.

Make Your Home a Place for Play

Creative, imaginative, active play -- the kind that fuels kids' hearts, minds and souls -- doesn't require expensive toys or massive outdoor play sets. It requires you to set the stage and get out of the way.

Want your kids to play? Try these tips:
  • Don't be afraid of mess. Creative play gets messy. It's pretty hard to create a Lego masterpiece without first dumping out all of the Legos. And it's next to impossible to build a good couch fort without first removing the couch cushions and gathering blankets from every bedroom in the house. So take a deep breath. Let go of your need and desire to have a perfectly coiffed home. Remind yourself that play helps kids learn. And let them play. (If it helps, schedule a clean-up time at the end of playtime.)
  • Provide raw materials. Ever notice that the most expensive, elaborate toys get the least play? That's because most fancy electronic toys do one thing only. The best play actively engages kids' imaginations, and pre-programmed playthings don't allow kids the freedom to create their own play experience. Instead of spending money on the latest and greatest toys, stock your home with blocks, playdoh and building sets. Add in some dress up clothes and cardboard boxes. Provide art supplies (crayons, markers, paints and scrap paper). Kids like "home things" too, like pretend food and baby dolls.
  • Get them outside. Inside play is good, but outside play allows your kids to explore on a bigger scale. Try to include some "outside time" everyday. If you don't have a backyard, head to a local park or nature center. Let your kids run, holler and climb.
  • Set an example. Sending the kids out to play is rarely as effective as heading out with them. While it's impractical (and unnecessary) for you to play with them all time, it's certainly nice to join in now and again. Shoot some hoops together. Play hopscotch. Join them for pretend tea party. And let your kids see you enjoying some fun-time as well. Too few adults play, and that's a shame!
  • Value play. Too many parents today think that academics are the key to success. Academics are important, but it doesn't have to be an either/or proposition. Kids, especially young kids, learn through play. A preschooler does not have to fill in a worksheet to learn how to count. He can count the rocks in the back of his toy truck.

What do you do to encourage play in your home?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Benefits of Active Play

Somehow, our society has lost touch with the importance of play. We talk a good game ("Play is the work of childhood") but our actions (reducing recess, eliminating playground football, making playgrounds so safe that kids find them boring) betray our true intentions. As a society, it seems, we want our kids to be safe, quiet and non-obtrusive.

I think that's a shame. Kids NEED to play -- loudly, freely and often -- in order to develop optimally.


So why aren't we letting our kids play? As far as I can see, the answer boils down to two concerns:

  1. Fear of injury
  2. Adult inconvenience

Let's tackle those one-by-one.

For kids, play has no real downside -- except for the fact that they might get hurt, physically or emotionally, during play.

Understandably, we want to keep our kids safe. Every single parent I know wants their children to grow up safe and healthy, and every kid-related institution I know (schools, daycare centers) want kids to remain safe because 1) they're genuinely concerned about the kids and 2) they're scared of lawsuits and legal liability, should a child become injured on their watch.

But let's put the fear of injury into perspective. According to a report by The Royal Children’ s Hospital, Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, and the Centre of Physical Activity Across the Lifespan at the Australian Catholic University, "There is no thing such as a risk-free play space."

The report continues:

"In some families the perceptions of risks and an over exaggerated need for close supervision, can prevent children from enjoying and maximising play experiences. Parents’ understanding of the risks associated with play may not in fact match the reality of these risks. Coming to terms with risks in play involves re-thinking the value of active play, and understanding that greater health risks are in fact associated with sedentary behaviour rather than being active.

Children, in schools and early childhood settings, have a right to time and space for child-centred play. Above all, parents and carers need to accept that active play is a natural and healthy means for children to 'explore, take risks, make mistakes, seek out adventure and test boundaries.'"

Is is possible that our efforts to protect our children are backfiring? In our haste to protect them from physical and emotional injury, are we in fact limiting their development? I think the answer is yes.

What about the other obstacle to free play, adult inconvenience?

Adults don't always like to admit it, but it's easier to keep tabs on quiet, sedentary children than it is to supervise a backyard full of kids who are playing War. Well, at least that's the perception. Sometimes I too think it's easier to care for my kids when they're happily entertained by the TV, computer and gaming system, but that's not always true. Often, when they disconnect from their electronic babysitters, my boys are restless and prone to getting into trouble. In reality, I find that my boys are much easier to deal with when they've had an adequate daily dose of active, outside time.

But active, outside time isn't easy to do when you're responsible for many children. I have four boys, and a relatively flexible job. (I work from home as a freelance writer.) What of parents who work all day, returning home after dark, just in time to make supper and supervise homework? What of the daycare providers and babysitters who have to supervise multiple children, while dealing with the ever-present threat of lawsuits and parents who would rather see their kids inside and intact than outside with a skinned knee?

I think it's time to change our societal mindset. I think it's time to make play a priority again. Will you join me? Next week, we'll talk about ways to incorporate play into our sons' days.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Kids & Play

I'm worried about our kids.

Yesterday, I started my day off with an 8 AM meeting with the middle school principal. The topic: playground football. Football (actually, all play involving footballs) has recently been banned from recess at the middle school. I wanted to know why. The answer? Injuries, aggressive behavior and liability.

Keep that answer in mind as you consider the conclusions of a study released today in the medical journal Pediatrics. The study’s title says it all: “Societal Values and Policies May Curtail Preschool Children’s Physical Activity in Child Care Centers.”

According to the study’s authors, ¾ of U.S. preschoolers are in some form of childcare. The vast majority of those kids is not getting the recommended amount of physical activity per day. (The National Association for Sport and Physical Education recommends that preschoolers participate in at least 60 minutes of structured physical activity per day, and at least 60 minutes of unstructured physical activity. Preschoolers should not be sedentary for more than 60 minutes at a time, unless sleeping.)

Preschoolers at childcare, though, spend 70 to 84% of their time in sedentary pursuits, and only 2 to 3% of their time in vigorous play.

The researchers wanted to know why, so they interviewed scores of childcare owners and workers. They identified three main barriers to active play -

1) Injury concerns

2) Financial

3) Focus on academics

-and concluded that, “societal priorities for young children – safety and school readiness – may be hindering children’s physical development.”

Think back to my conversation with the principal. Football was banned from the playground due to injury concerns. During the course of our conversation, I learned that our district’s 4th graders now only get one recess a day instead of two, and that the time that was previously spent on a second recess is now used for extra math practice. Sounds like prioritizing school readiness over play to me.

As a parent, I’m concerned, and not just for my own children. I’m acutely aware that my boys need time to run around and explore. But I also know that all children need opportunities for physical play, and that kid-structured playtime can improve academic learning and social skills. I know that boys, especially, have a competitive, aggressive streak that needs to find a safe outlet, and that learning to manage that streak is an important part of the trek to manhood.

As a licensed nurse, I’m also aware of the potential for injury. Boy #2 played organized tackle football for the first time this year, and believe me, I paid attention to news stories and research about concussions. Like all parents, I want my kids to grow up safe and healthy. But unlike some parents and educators, I’m willing to let my kids take physical risks, because I believe that in most cases, the benefits outweigh the risks.

You see, when I say that I want my kids to grow up safe and healthy, I mean that in a most holistic manner. I value their physical health, but I also value their emotional, spiritual and social health. I want my boys to learn to value and honor their instincts. I want them to learn from nature. And I want them to be adventurous explorers of their world. (For the record, I’d want the same for my daughters, if I had any.)

So while I know that climbing trees is a risky endeavor (they could break an arm!), I let my boys climb. (With some restrictions: the rule at our house has always been that you must be able to get into and out of the tree on your own.) I let them climb because I understand that it’s important for kids to test limits, to stretch their muscles and imaginations and to spend time in nature. When it comes to tree climbing, I personally believe that the benefits outweigh the risks.

Same thing with football. Yes, my boys might get hurt. But I believe that the fun and exercise and enjoyment they get from the game – not to mention the practice of learning to play well with others – exceeds the risk. The odds are extremely good that one of my boys will be hurt in some way while playing football. But the odds are better that any injuries experienced will be minor compared to the benefits they’ll obtain by playing the sport.

Somehow, though, social policies and values have shifted to the point that we, as a society, are more concerned about protecting our children than facilitating their development. Many of the childcare workers interviewed for the Pediatrics study expressed concern about the amount of time their charges spent in sedentary play, but felt pressure from parents to minimize physical play and to maximize academic engagement.

In fact, the study authors conclude that pediatricians (the paper’s target audience) may be able to increase kids’ physical activity by educating parents. "Pediatricians,” they write, “may need to highlight for parents the many learning benefits of outdoor play…and reassure parents that active time does not need to come at the expense of time dedicated to ‘academics’ and ‘learning.’”

I’m sad that it’s come to this – that doctors now have to educate parents as to the importance of active play. But I’m determined to do my part. So for the next month here at Blogging ‘Bout Boys, we’ll be talking about the importance of play. Help me get the conversation started. What challenges do you face in your community? Do kids in your school district get recess? Do you ever feel pressure from other parents to restrict your childrens’ play? What do you think we, as parents, can do to re-emphasize the importance of play?