The Power of Play

Posted by Orah Azose on 30 Jul 2015

"If you want your child to be the best then they have to start young and stay focused" is a mantra parents are signing up to all around the world.  Whether it is America's Got Talent, Britain's Got Talent, or a talent show from any other country, many of the best contestants seem to be people who have been developing their talents and training from a very young age.  Similarly, on the sports circuit, from tennis to football, the best will be training before they are out of diapers.

However, there is a growing realization that rather than giving our children a future, if we force them to learn too early, we are stealing their childhood.  As a result, our children are not being given an opportunity to play.  Perhaps it is time that preschool really should be preschool, and we leave the formal educating until children are older.

Trying to explain to a driven parent (which really means a parent who is driving their child) that they must let their child play in order to allow them to grow and achieve seems counterintuitive, but it is exactly this message that needs to be communicated.  There needs to be a recognition that play is not lost time, but is in fact an essential and formative element in a child's development.

Edited by Sharna Olfman, All Work and No Play...: How Educational Reforms Are Harming Our Preschoolers is a collection of essays on the importance of childhood play. It shows how play is an integral part in the healthy development of children, and warns against the dangers of educational reforms that are impacting on the freedom of preschoolers to develop.

The essay by Singer, Singer, Plaskon and Schweder entitled “A Role for Play in the Preschool Curriculum” highlights the many benefits of play and how, through this play, four- and five-year-olds are learning about the world.  Children learn to use their imagination, sheets become tents, and animals and dolls are guests at their imaginary tea parties.  As children play with one another, they learn to interact in positive ways, and start to understand how to curb their negative impulses and express feelings of anger through words.  Rather than force-feeding young children with information, this should be an enjoyable time in their lives as they learn to explore the wonders of the world and develop a thirst for knowledge that if nurtured will result in a passion for learning and a determination to continue growing.

Olfman dedicates a whole section of her book to technology.  Entitled “Wired Classrooms/ Wired Brains”, this section contains a series of essays exploring the role of technology in the development of children, and it isn't all good news.

Jane Healy in her essay “Cybertots: Technology and the Preschool Child” alerts us to the dangers of children growing up with technology.   We all marvel at the two-year-old child who knows their way around an iPad, but this turns to trepidation as we watch their dependency grow until they are spending hours a day interacting only with a screen.

In this regard, play is no longer about positive interactions or developing a child's imagination.  On the contrary, the imagination is limited to the programmer’s graphical portrayal of an alternative reality, and the only interaction they will have with others is competing online, which is almost entirely negative.  Remove the computer and the resulting tantrum will invariably result in the parents capitulating and returning their child to the zombified world of computer gaming.

We rationalize the use of computers with the argument that preschoolers have to be prepared for school where computers will play an essential part in their learning.  However, the skills required can be gained very quickly at a later stage and the cost to our children of introducing technology too early is considerable.

Another section of the book takes us to appreciate imagination and emotion and the role that play plays in both.  Regarding imagination, the author of the essay notes that play is crucial in exploring the formative principles of the world.  The author of the essay on emotions bemoans the current rationalist model of education and calls for a more emotional one with affective experiences.

The final section deals with increased technology and decreased play contributing to mental health issues, such as ADHD, feelings of neglect, and many other psychiatric illnesses.  Olfman herself pens the final essay in which she cries foul over the changes being made in education today in which play is sidelined for standardization and technology.

Although I agree with Olfman’s main thesis overall, I will disagree with one thing: I believe that standards are important.  I believe that there can be a way to align with the standards and still allow ample time for play.  I truly believe that some balance must be struck.

In summary, whether it is due to an over determination to educate, or the result of cyber warfare on our children, play is fast becoming a lost art.  We need to be cognizant of the dangers inherent in our children growing up too quickly and must ensure that they have a chance to play.  Feeding a boundless imagination and ensuring opportunities for creativity are essential elements in preparing for school.  They will ensure our children have a thirst for knowledge, a passion to learn, and the ability to interactive with others in a healthy and positive way.

All Work and No Play...: How Educational Reforms Are Harming Our Preschoolers is edited by Sharna Olfman and printed by Praeger Publishers.

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