Friday, 11 April 2014

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Childhood & Play

3 May 2014 (5Y1M27D) - J and the kids at play

Recently I read about Singapore students coming out top in problem-solving in OECD’s PISA ranking (http://www.moe.gov.sg/media/press/2014/04/singapore-students-excel-in-thinking-flexibility.php). It is worth celebrating, but there are much self-reflection on the weaknesses of the Singapore’s education system as well. Singapore students are strong on hard core skills (Maths, Science, reading and problem-solving), but weaker on the soft skills (articulation, public speaking, leadership, etc.) (http://m.todayonline.com/voices/high-pisa-scores-do-not-always-translate-job-performance). Singaporean kids have highly scheduled timetable filled to the brim with enrichment activities. They do not have much free time. This imbalance is harder to address. Perhaps the key to addressing the weaknesses is to ensure ample free play time.

I have also read the article by The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) on "The Importance of Play in Promoting Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds" (http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/119/1/182.full#sec-3). According to the article, it is through play that children acquire creativity, leadership and group skills, it is precisely the soft skills that are weaker in Singaporean students. It is a long article, but I want to highlight the key personal learnings.

I have been thinking about the importance of childhood and play. Perhaps there are many roads that lead to Rome and each of us needs to find the balance appropriate for our family. Being a planner at heart, born and bred as a Singaporean, unstructured play is not something I am good at, and I need to learn the art of unstructured play. I want to remember "Oil R" (i.e. Observe, Interact, Listen, Read).

Importance of Play in Childhood

- Essential for optimal child development - cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children by offering children opportunities for physical (running, jumping, climbing, etc.), intellectual (healthy brain development), social and emtional development.

- Allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, physical, cognitive and emotional strength.

- A simple joy that is a cherished part of childhood.

- Builds confidence and resilience.

- Counters stress.

- Builds close bond and connection with parents.

- Gives the child the opportunity to develop to their unique potential.

- Prepares our children to be academically, socially, and emotionally equipped to lead us into the future.

In a nutshell, play allows children “to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, physical, cognitive and emotional strength.”

1. Social Development

It is through play that children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them. Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering their fears while practicing adult roles, sometimes in conjunction with other children or adult caregivers. Play and unscheduled time that allow for peer interactions are important components of social-emotional learning.

2. Emotional Development

As they master their world, play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence and the resiliency they will need to face future challenges. Children also learn to develop empathy, compassion and friendships through play.

3. Physical Development

In contrast to passive entertainment, play builds active, healthy bodies. Encouraging unstructured play could be an exceptional way to increase physical activity levels in children.

4. Intellectual Development

Play is integral to the academic environment. Play has been shown to help children adjust to the school setting and even to enhance children’s learning readiness, learning behaviors, and problem-solving skills. Social-emotional learning is best integrated with academic learning. It is concerning if some of the forces that enhance children’s ability to learn are elevated at the expense of others.

Unstructured Free Play (Hanging-Out Time)

One parent calls it “hanging-out time.” Unstructured play encourages creativity and imagination.

Playing and interacting with other children, as well as some adults, provides opportunities to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts and to learn self-advocacy skills. When play is allowed to be child driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue. However, when play is controlled by adults, children acquiesce to adult rules and concerns and lose some of the benefits play offers them, particularly in developing creativity, leadership, and group skills.

Examples of Unstructured Play

A mom from Hellobee provides a good example of unstructured play as follows:

“Play that encourages your child to use his imagination such as playing with blocks and dolls. A group of kids playing soccer in the backyard together, versus only playing on a team with a coach, would be another example of free play time.”

Factors Limiting the Benefits of Play

1. Lack of Parental Responsiveness

According to the AAP, parents of poor children tend to be less responsive and more authoritarian.

2. Hurried and Pressured Lifestyle

According to the AAP, parents of middle class tend to be leading a hurried and pressured lifestyle. Children have less time for free exploratory play as they are hurried to adapt into adult roles and prepare for their future at earlier ages. Many parents seem to feel as though they are running on a treadmill to keep up yet dare not slow their pace for fear their children will fall behind. In addition, some worry they will not be acting as proper parents if they do not participate in this hurried lifestyle.

3. Academics and Enrichment Activities

The AAP points towards increased focus on the fundamentals of academic preparation, specialized gyms, enrichment programs and an abundance of after-school enrichment activities in lieu of a broader view of education. Parents feel the pressure to expose their children to every opportunity to excel, buy a plethora of enrichment tools and ensure their children participate in a wide variety of activities. Children are exposed to enrichment videos and computer programs from early infancy as well as specialized books and toys designed to ensure that they are well-rounded and adequately stimulated for excelled development.

As a result, much of parent-child time is spent arranging special activities or transporting children between those activities.

4. Lack of Time for Free Play

As a result, time for free play has been markedly reduced due to factors such as a hurried lifestyle, increased attention to academics and enrichment activities at the expense of recess or free child-centered play and other forces that compete for children’s time.

5. Increased Screen Time

In sharp contrast to the health benefits of active, creative play and the known developmental benefits of an appropriate level of organized activities, there is ample evidence that this passive entertainment is not protective and in fact, has some harmful effects.

Potential Repercussions

1. Impact on Cognitive Development

The AAP states that reducing play time to focus on reading and mathematics "may have implications on children’s ability to store new information, because children’s cognitive capacity is enhanced by a clear-cut and significant change in activity. A change in academic instruction or class topic does not offer this clear-cut change in cognitive effort and certainly does not offer a physical release. Even a formal structured physical education class may not offer the same benefit as free-play recess. Reduced time for physical activity may be contributing to the discordant academic abilities between boys and girls, because schools that promote sedentary styles of learning become a more difficult environment for boys to navigate successfully."

2. Impact on Families

According to the AAP, "adults who may already be burdened by work responsibilities and maintaining a household find themselves sacrificing their downtime, because they need to arrange activities and transport children between appointments. In addition, because of the pressures they feel to meet every one of the needs they perceive their child requires to excel, they may feel inadequate and ultimately have less personal satisfaction in parenting. Most importantly, parents lose the opportunity for perhaps the highest-quality time with their children. Some of the best interactions occur during downtime—just talking, preparing meals together, and working on a hobby or art project, playing sports together, or being fully immersed in child-centered play.”

Why It Is Not A Good Idea to Skip a Year and Start Your Child Early in School?

According to the AAP, “although most highly scheduled children are thriving, they have less time for free, child-driven, creative play which offers benefits that may be protective against the effects of pressure and stress. The protective influences of both play and high-quality family time are negatively affected by the current trends toward highly scheduling children.”

Solutions

1. Plan and Structure Time for Both

• Have a Balanced Mix of Organised and Child-Driven Free Play Time.

• According to Professor Andrew Martin, who specialises in educational psychology at the University of New South Wales in Australia, plan and structure children's activities such as time for homework, free play time and time one-on-one with parents to build the relationship.

• Plan in organised activities, but make sure to include ample amount of free play time into the calendar. And if you need to, reduce the amount of organised activities in order to fit both in.

• Find an academic schedule that is appropriately challenging and extracurricular exposures that offer appropriate balance for the child based on his unique needs, skills, and temperament, not on the basis of what may be overly pressurized or competitive community standards.

2. Give Your Child Ample Child-Driven Free Play

• Give children ample, unscheduled, independent and non-screen time to be creative, reflect and decompress.

• Child-driven free play develops well-rounded and resilient children.

• Parents must either not present or be passive observers.

3. Allow Your Child to Explore Variety of Interests

• Allow children to explore a variety of interests without feeling pressured to excel in each area through child-driven play.

4. Avoid Unrealistic Expectations

• According to the AAP, avoid conveying the unrealistic expectation that the child needs to excel in multiple areas to be considered successful. Don’t encourage the child to become expert in only 1 area (eg, a particular sport or musical instrument) to the detriment of having the opportunity to explore other areas of interest. (In the adult world, people rarely excel in more than 1 or 2 areas, while well-balanced individuals enjoy several others.)

5. Spend Time with Your child

• Parents should remember that sharing unscheduled spontaneous time with their children and play with their children is supportive, nurturing and productive.

• Love and cherish your child unconditionally – by spending time together with your child, listen, talk, nothing more and nothing less. Children will be poised for success, secure in the knowledge that their parents absolutely and unconditionally love them.

• Deep connection develops when parents engage with their children.

The most valuable and useful character traits that will prepare children for success arise not from extracurricular or academic commitments, but from a firm grounding in parental love, listening, caring, role modeling, guidance and discipline. Although very well intentioned, shuttling children between numerous activities may not be the best quality time.

• Sharing pleasurable time together are the true predictors of childhood, and they serve as a springboard toward a happy, successful adulthood.

• The value of play as an ideal venue for parents to engage fully must be reinforced.

• Parents should spend at least one hour of quality time each week wtih the kids, one-on-one, to build the relationship. Do not instruct, teach or suggest alternatives during this time. Just express positive thoughts and feelings and follow their lead, according to Professor Andrew Martin, who specialises in educational psychology at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

6. Read to Your Child

• Read to your child, even at very early ages - proven benefits.

7. Give Your Child Simple Toys

• Give children “true toys” such as blocks and dolls to use their imagination fully, over passive toys that require limited imagination.

8. Limit Screen Time

• Limit passive entertainment (e.g., television and computer games).

9. Organize Playdates

• Organize playgroups beginning at an early preschool age of approximately 2.5 to 3 years.

10. Find an Appropriate Level Enrichment Activities for Your Child

• It would be wrong to assume that all enrichment activities are bad. The key is finding a balance. I quote from an article from AAP:

“It is clear that organized activities have a developmental benefit for children, especially in contrast to completely unsupervised time. Some research substantiates that for most children, benefits increase with higher levels of participation. There are advantages for increased exposures and enriched academics some of our children are receiving. In fact, many of our children, particularly those in poverty, should receive more enrichment activities. But even children who are benefiting from this enrichment still need some free unscheduled time for creative growth, self-reflection, and decompression and would profit from the unique developmental benefits of child-driven play.”

“It is less clear, however, at what point a young person may be “overscheduled” to their developmental detriment or emotional distress. Free child-driven play known to benefit children is decreased, and the downtime that allows parents and children some of the most productive time for interaction is at a premium when schedules become highly packed with adult-supervised or adult-driven activities.”

• We need to evaluate whether “the end-point goal—the best school or the best job—must be reached at all costs.”

10. Speak to Teachers

• Speak to teachers as sounding boards to help parents evaluate the specific needs of their child in terms of developing resiliency, confidence and competence - child’s path toward a successful future.

11. Playful Structure

“Playful Structure” means to combine informal learning with formal learning to produce an effective learning experience for children at a young age.

More ideas here:
http://www.littleecofootprints.com/2011/01/camping-unstructured-outdoor-play-free.html
http://www.coldcoffeeandtoast.com/make-more-time-for-unstructured-play/
http://www.littleecofootprints.com/2013/10/slow-unstructured-play.html
http://mynearestanddearest.com/outdoor-play-spaces-for-children/
http://www.kneebouncers.com/2011/09/27/kneebouncers-play-benefits-of-playing-with-your-child/

Conclusion

Both organised activities and unstructured play are important to the child's development. Parents need to consider the appropriate balance between preparing for the future and living fully in the present through play, child-centered organized activities, and rich parent-child interaction. The balance will be different for every child depending on the child’s academic needs, temperament, environment and the family’s needs. Parents should plan and structure children's activities such as time for homework, free play time and time with parents.

According to AAP, certain character traits will produce children capable of navigating an increasingly complex world as they grow older. These traits include confidence, competence or the ability to master the environment and a deep-seated connectedness to and caring about others that create the love, safety, and security that children need to thrive. In addition, to be resilient—to remain optimistic and be able to rebound from adversity—the character traits of honesty, generosity, decency, tenacity, and compassion are essential. Children are most likely to gain all of these essential traits of resiliency within a home in which parents and children have time to be together and to look to each other for positive support and unconditional love.

The challenge for parents is to strike the balance that allows all children to reach their potential without pushing them beyond their personal comfort limits and while allowing them personal free playtime.

Here is a summary post on how to play with your children.

References:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Childhood
http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/119/1/182.full
http://northstarindependenthomeschoolers.com/2013/01/30/the-importance-of-child-driven-play/
http://www.highlights.com/on_parenting_with_dr_schwager/play_is_essential_to_learning_istar_schwager_phd
http://www.momsteam.com/successful-parenting/unstructured-free-play-important-for-child-development-experts-say
http://www.thestrong.org/about-play/play-home
http://www.acefitness.org/certifiednewsarticle/1263/it-39-s-time-to-get-serious-about-child-s-play/
http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/confessions_anxious_parent
http://www.littleecofootprints.com/2011/01/camping-unstructured-outdoor-play-free.html
http://www.everwell.com/insights/embrace_unstructured_play_kids.php
http://www.empowher.com/parenting/content/lost-art-unstructured-play-could-be-costing-our-children
http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/article/why-children-need-play-0
http://www.earlychildhoodnews.com/earlychildhood/article_view.aspx?ArticleID=240
http://www.straitstimes.com/news/singapore/education/story/st-education-forum-what-the-normal-attention-span-primary-school-boy-#sthash.6se1W6ls.dpuf





 

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