The Witness, Tuesday October 4, 2005 WHY PLAY-TIME IS IMPORTANT Today’s children have less time to express themselves – to their disadvantage “Grrrrrrrrr!” I‟m a monster and I‟m going to eat you up!” I shivered and shook as the monster burst through my bedroom door. “Please don‟t eat me up, I beg of you! I‟ll do anything you want me to!” I cried, trying to get out of its way. Peals of laughter rang out and the monster was suddenly transformed into a beautiful four year old – my granddaughter. We all recognise that play forms a part of most children‟s lives, but what kind of play and just how important is it? It really is worth taking another look at WHY and HOW children need to play. As we know, children can play in many different ways: with toys, through art and craft activities, sports, games, and imaginative play, and a balance of these is ideal. Child experts today, however, are expressing concern about the lack of balance in children‟s play and especially the lack of unstructured, imaginative play in the lives of many children. Children are, they have found, spending more and more time in adult-structured activities that have rules and are competitive. Too much of this, they say, puts pressure on them to grow up too fast as they try to live up to unrealistic expectations. This can result in them developing, amongst other anxieties, a fear of failure - a reluctance to take risks or try anything new which impacts their creativity. The University of Kansas, for instance, found that many children were spending most of their recreational time in two ways: playing television or computer-based games or preparing themselves for adult organized activities such as swimming, soccer or „League‟. “We found children expressing themselves very little”, reported E. Peter Johnsen, professor of educational psychology and research,. “ We didn‟t find a lot of pretend play, where children use their imaginations in constructing play episodes.” What is so important about imaginative or „pretend‟ play? Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. says that unstructured, imaginative play has much greater value to a child‟s overall development then the more formal types of play. “As children lose touch with their instinctive tendency to be creative in using free time, their social, emotional, and intellectual lives may suffer the consequences”, he explains. Why and in what ways? Firstly, let‟s look at the social benefits. Imaginative play, Armstrong points out, prepares children for participation in family and community life by allowing them to explore social roles. By pretending to be mums and dads, friends, doctors, teachers and whoever they wish to be, they are able to see life from different perspectives. Secondly, it allows children to work through negative emotions. By being monsters or playing people whom they find threatening, they can experience a sense of power and control over what it is that is worrying them. Bruno Bettelheim in his book “The Uses of Enchantment’ writes “the most competent child encounters what seem like insurmountable problems in living. But by playing them out, in the way he chooses, he may become able to cope with them in a step-by-step process”. Thirdly, it develops children‟s intellectual abilities and they often have their best learning experiences when involved in free, unstructured play. As they explore the world around them through their senses, they are testing their hypotheses and adjusting their ideas as they go. And, that isn‟t all, studies have also shown that imaginative play enhances language development and attention spans. What wonderful benefits! How sad then that fewer children are having the opportunity to experience this kind of play. Frank and Theresa Caplan found that many anxious children have lost their ability to play and have to be helped by therapists, sometimes much later in life. These, they say, include children from all economic backgrounds: some children from disadvantaged families lack the opportunity to use educational materials early on and this can inhibit their ability to think flexibly later. On the other hand, children in more wealthy families have too many materials and activities and not enough time for unstructured play. “The days of most of these middle-class children are filled with scheduled activities – music and dance lessons, organized sports – which leave them hardly any time simply to be themselves”, says Bruno Bettelheim. A comfort to parents is that, according to Virginia Satir, there are no perfect parents, but what‟s important she says, “is that you keep moving in the direction of good parenting”. So let‟s take another step in that direction by taking stock of the different forms of play that our own children are involved in, and then ask ourselves whether there is a healthy balance between organized and imaginative play. Stevanne Auerback, in her book Toy Chest, suggests that we expose our children to three different categories of toys which will help create a balance: active toys like roller skates, skipping ropes, yo-yo‟s, bicycles, prams (things like large cardboard boxes, trees to climb, can be effective and inexpensive); creative toys like clay and dough, waste materials, paints, puppets and percussion instruments (both easy to make); educational toys such as board games and puzzles (also easy and fun to make), magnets, globes. Armstrong suggests that we encourage children to not only use computers for games, but to be creative with it - drawing, experimenting, planning (eg. parties, holidays), recording their own thoughts and ideas, maybe producing a family newsletter. Most importantly, let‟s give them the time for unstructured, imaginative play. Maybe an „unorganised‟ afternoon or two each week when they can just be children enjoying stress-free play activities that they are able to regulate themselves. “Play is the highest level of child development” wrote Friedrich Froebel, and when we look at the benefits we can see why! Beryl Lourens is the founder and director of The Centre For Life-Long Learning which specialises in Learning and Productivity Styles and Multiple Intelligences. info@C4lifelonglearning.co.za.