Free play should be bumped up in priority—ahead of organized sports, lessons, and other extracurricular activities designed to assist in kids’ résumé-building. In a new book, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, Peter Gray makes the point that free play is vital to children’s healthy development.
Gray writes, “Playing with other children, away from adults, is how children learn to make their own decisions, control their emotions and impulses, see from others’ perspectives, negotiate differences with others, and make friends. In short, play is how children learn to take control of their lives.”
This is a vitally important message in an era when parents feel guilty if they’re not over-programming their kids’ lives. Think about the dizzy competition for the ‘best’ pre-schools and the private schools that cater to Ivy-frenzy. Think about the runaway successes of Baby Einstein-type products, extracurricular activities, and Tiger Mother approaches. Think about the time kids are spending preparing for standardized tests.
Peter Gray is arguing that instead of participating in this mad merry-go-round, parents and teachers should be encouraging their children’s innate curiosity, playfulness, sociability and deep desire to learn. Kids need time to play.
Learning can be great fun, but only when kids feel actively engaged in it. Choice is an important component of engagement in learning, as is spontaneous unprogrammed social and intellectual interaction with other kids. Free unstructured play is a serious topic at a time when kids’ anxiety and stress levels are at an all-time high.
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Thank you to Annie Murphy Paul for bringing this to my attention!
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