The Value of Spontaneous Play
By Wendy Priesnitz
I have written numerous times about the importance
of having fun with our children and not worrying about whether they’re learning
anything or not. However, I don’t want to minimize the value of spontaneous
play and the amount of learning that occurs through it.
The first book I ever read about homeschooling was
a few years after our family began our life learning adventure in the 1970s.
And the Children Played (Tundra, 1975), a memoir by the late Canadian
playwright Patricia Joudry about her young family’s life in the UK. I was
delighted to read her humorous description of a life that was very similar
to ours, where the children played as the rest of family life unfolded,
including mom’s writing career. Like Joudry, we never doubted that self-directed,
spontaneous play was the best way for our daughters to learn.
Of course, there are many others who understand the
immense value of play. Scholar and author Joseph Chilton Pearce has said
that play (and I think he meant
unstructured play) is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind
Sadly, spontaneous play is becoming a casualty of
modern Western society’s frighteningly misguided attempt to better educate
children. Despite a great deal of research to the contrary – and pleas from
groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics – many parents and policy
makers continue to believe that pressuring children to learn earlier and
faster will help them succeed.
Ever-younger children are being placed in structured
teaching environments in the name of future success in school (which, of
course, doesn’t have much to do with real education anyway). In school –
and many homes – play is what you do when the more important, adult-led
things are finished, like reading readiness and math drills. That’s why,
in many schools, recess is endangered. The
Museum of Play in Rochester, NY
(now there’s a sure sign of an endangered species!) says that forty percent
of elementary schools in the U.S. have reduced or eliminated recess, partially
to make time to prepare for standardized testing (a policy that many parents
support.) I’m sure the numbers are similar in many other countries.
A related concern is
safety as they play. We have developed an unjustified fear that our
kids will hurt themselves if allowed unlimited and unsupervised spontaneous
play, disregarding the value of
risk in their development.
Oddly enough, an opposite trend is underway for adults.
Many leading edge businesses are aware that creativity, innovation and productivity
are nurtured by play, and are structuring play spaces into their corporate
facilities. They’re quoting people like Swiss philosopher Jean Piaget, who
once said to a group of adults: “If you want to be creative, stay in part
a child, with the creativity and invention that characterizes children before
they are deformed by adult society.” These corporate leaders know that play
allows the mind to flow without restrictions – to explore, to experiment,
to question, to take risks, to be adventurous, to create to innovate and
to accomplish – without fear of rejection or disapproval. And that is the
perfect learning environment...for all ages.
So next time your child stops to play with an ant
on the sidewalk, or just wants to run through some mud puddles, don’t hurry
them along to an activity of your choice. Children have a lot to teach us
about the best way to spend the present moment – they know all about the
value of spontaneous play.
Wendy Priesnitz is the editor of Life Learning
Magazine and Child's Play Magazine, and the author of 13 books, with three
more in the works.
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