Nine-year-old Sandra plays soccer. She just loves it and she’s not a bad little player. She plays defense and has at least one practice a week as well as a game on the weekend.
Nine-year-old Barbara has a soccer ball and is at the park. She is kicking the ball around aimlessly. She sees a brick wall and tries to kick the ball up so it will bounce back. Then she picks is up and tries to throw it through the basketball hoop, then she bounces it on the ground. Earlier that day she’d seen an ad for fitness balls so she then sat on the ball to see if she could do sit-ups.
Are both Sandra and Barbara playing? The answer is No. According to play experts there are certain qualities that characterize play and Sandra’s soccer game doesn’t fit the criteria. Play requires that the activity be voluntary, freely chosen with the child in control of the activity. It’s also spontaneous.
So let’s take a look at the two girls. When Sandra is playing soccer her role is determined by her position on the team. She practices and plays according to a pre-determined scheduled and is only on the field when given permission. Her participation is not spontaneous but driven by the rules and by her coach. Barbara, on the other hand, is doing exactly what she feels like doing with the soccer ball and can continue for as long as she wishes. She can change her actions and experiment with the ball in any way she chooses. There are no rules.
Does this make one better than the other? Absolutely not. Kids benefit from both, but too many of today’s kids are spending the bulk of their free time is organized, structured and scheduled activities.
Sports teach children to become part of a team, to play their role and respect the roles of their teammates. They learn to develop the skills specific to the sport and follow the rules. They also learn how to be both gracious winners and losers. Sports also help kids feel that they belong, that they are part of something bigger than themselves when they can say, “ I am a Volleyball player, and I belong to the team.” Sports or a team activity is of great value to kids.
But, there are limitations, and they learn other important lessons from play. Because play is spontaneous and controlled by the child, it’s creative. Through play kids learn how to problem-solve, how to think outside the box, that there are many different ways to approach any situation.
When children become teens and young adults they will quickly learn that life isn’t always predictable. Children who have spent their time in organized activity are less able to handle the challenges they will face. Their experience with their activities teaches them that there are clear rules and expectations and that if they just follow those rules and the dictates of the coach they will do just fine. Kids who have had lots of time to play will know that when something isn’t working you just tackle it from another direction. If the soccer ball is the wrong size to throw through the basketball hoop, then do something else with the ball or get a different ball. Play has taught them to be creative and try different options to any situation.
Children need four kinds of play every day.
The first is outdoor play in which they use all their large muscles as they run and jump, roll and climb. No matter how much time they spend tearing around the house and jumping on the bed, nothing beats being outdoors. Once outdoors, let them move without hovering over them and worrying.
They need some time to play with parents. The trick here is do what they want (no matter how boring!) and just relax. This is not the time to decide to teach manners or art appreciation. On the other hand, you don’t need to spend all your free time playing with them.
The need to play with friends. For many kids, this need is met at daycare where they get to play with kids their own age. It’s important that we make our homes comfortable and welcoming for our children and their friends.
Children also need some time to play alone. This is the time your child learns to amuse himself, and when he often develops his creativity and imagination. It will also help him to develop self-reliance.
Some parents find it challenging to figure out how to play with their children. The trick is to play a supporting role in your child’s play. Let them take the lead and have fun. The following ideas come from my book But Nobody Told Me I’d Ever Have to Leave Home.
- Be present. Simply make yourself available to your child. The child determines the level of your activity.
- Accept an invitation to play. Whether it’s your child wanting you to dance with her or join her finger-painting say yes.
- Support activities. Provide a pail and shovel for your intrepid sandbox baby or suggest a picnic lunch in the tent created from blankets and sheets.
- Suggest options. As you watch a play activity progress you can bring a new idea to the piece, “What if you took the dolls for a walk in your wagon?”
- Make child-friendly rules. If you enjoy table games, change the rules to recognize the ability of your child and level the playing field so it’s fun for all.
- Relax and have fun.
Children raised with a good balance of structured activity and free play have a real advantage.
Kathy Lynn is a parenting expert who is a professional speaker and author of Who’s In Charge Anyway? and But Nobody Told Me I’d Ever Have to Leave Home. If you want to read more, sign up for her informational newsletter at www.parentingtoday.ca.