Creative Play For All Ages

Two years ago, a clinical report appeared in Pediatrics (the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics) about the lack of creative playtime for American children and its possible long-term effects. The report's findings continue to ripple out into the medical and educational communities, and are now starting to spread to the general public, with a recent Associated Press article on the topic.

The report found that "play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth. Play also offers an ideal opportunity for parents to engage fully with their children." As a result of the "No Child Left Behind Act", many schools have reduced or eliminated recess time--even for kindergartners. Highly structured play and learning increasingly begins during the pre-school years--even in infancy--and culminates in the harried "soccer mom" years of adolescence as parents make sure that their children have every possible opportunity for collegiate success. Many parents will not allow their children to play outside of the home due to a real or perceived lack of a safe environment. Video games, television, and other passive forms of entertainment cut into playtime, too.

While structured learning and organized activities are beneficial, there is a point at which "good" becomes "too much". The rising incidence of childhood and adolescent depression--extending into the college years--is suspected to be rooted in the loss of creative playtime, the effects of which seem to be long-term and cumulative. A 2003 survey of college students reported that 61% had feelings of hopelessness during the previous academic year, 45% felt so depressed they had trouble functioning, and 9% had thought about suicide.

So what is a responsible parent to do? First, some kids thrive in a highly structured lifestyle. The problem is that many others do not. Take a look at how your child is doing, seek advice from your pediatrician and//or mental health professional, and consider whether some changes are in order. Is your child showing signs of stress? Depression? Unexplained headaches, stomachaches, etc.? Do you feel like you're on a "hamster wheel" trying to keep up with your child's schedule? Do you have time to actually share meals as a family?

h3. If change is needed, here are some suggestions.

# Play with your kids! Step away from the video display. Engage in some make-believe with old clothes. Do some story-telling (or listen to them tell you stories). Play interactive (and often silly) games like charades. Shoot some hoops together or play Frisbee. Go for a bike ride. Your kids will benefit, and so will you.
# Don't overschedule your kids. Does your child really "need" flute lessons, fencing, swimming, theatre, and supplemental college prep classes--every week? The ensuing frantic lifestyle is expensive, transportation intensive, and stress inducing--and it sets your child up to expect that adulthood is supposed to be even more frantic. Is it any wonder we have such a huge problem with depression in this country?
# Limit your kids' "screentime". Study after study has found that computer games, console games, television, and movies--no matter how "educational" or "interactive"--do not satisfy the need for creative play.
# Question marketing hype that suggest that you "owe it to your child" to buy a particular product or service. Closely examine your parenting practices that are motivated by guilt--are you doing those things because they are good for your child or because they are "what a good parent is supposed to do"?
# Take a look at your expectations for your child. To quote Julie Moore Selberg, "Everyone deserves to be good at something." However, it is unreasonable to expect your child to be good at everything. Yet far too many parents expect excellence in everything that their child does. Help your child find the thing(s) for which they have a gift while balancing the tendency to overspecialize.
# Examine the sports in which your child participates to determine which ones contribute to creative play. Most organized sports do not--especially team sports. Many individual sports, under the right circumstances, are creative play. (I suspect that part of the attraction of skateboarding for some kids is the fact that it is highly creative.) Remember, too, that enjoyable physical activity is a key element in the battle against childhood (and adulthood) obesity.

bq. Special thanks to contributer Michael Heggen for writing this article. Learn more about his local fencing studio at "Salem Classical Fencing":

h3. References:

* Ginsburg, Kenneth R., "The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds", Pediatrics, Volume 119, Number 1, January 2007, pp. 182-191.