By Donna Abemayor, LCSW
“Let’s play.” It’s such a simple phrase between children, but in today’s world, the meaning of play has changed significantly from what we remember from our childhoods. Accordingly to Dorothy Singer, Ph.D., a child psychologist at Yale University, play is engaging in an activity for the fun of doing it–but it is more than that…
Play has the ability to teach children decision-making, risk-taking, problem-solving and creativity. Children can learn the values of honesty and fairness through play and can try out and rehearse many different behaviors.
My earliest memories of play are of a childhood spent happily in suburban Rockland County. Activities such as spud, wiffleball, tag and tea parties filled my days. At the custom-made roller-rink in my parent’s garage, our cassettes of Donny Osmond and The Jackson 5 always made my sneaker-based roller skates move faster. I will never forget the many forts and Barbie Dream Houses we made out of cardboard boxes. All the children in the neighborhood would gather together regardless of age. There was no need for parents to schedule play dates. It was a time when the neighborhood was our friend. When we spoke about “we,” it referred to our family, school and community, not a video game console. There was no texting or video chatting, just conversation. Quite simply, it was fun.
with Over Scheduling
Although some of this free-wheeling socialization exists today, much of children’s play has taken the form of scheduled activities. The name of that nostalgic childhood game, “Red Light, Green Light, 1, 2, 3,” seems to take on new meaning as parents drive to various after-school activities. As we negotiate the twists and turns of Routes 120, 133, 117 or 100, we desperately hope that the light around the next bend is green.
According to recent research by Kenneth Ginsburg, M.D., a pediatrician affiliated with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, many children today are being raised in an increasingly hurried and pressured style which limits the positive benefits they might gain from free child-driven play.
Ginsburg and Rhonda Clements, Ed.D., a professor of education at Manhattanville College, both cite the growing emphasis on achievement at an ever-earlier age as the driving force of choosing scheduled activities. The same researchers also report that a balance between scheduled activities and free-play is necessary for children to function optimally. Scheduled activities such as sports or theater can have positive aspects in the development of a child’s interests, but the research suggests these plusses do not replace the cognitive, physical, social and emotional gains of free child-centered play.
Many parents fear that if they don’t keep up the pace of scheduled involvement, their children will fall behind. This inevitably leads to over-scheduling. The research also shows that with higher crime rates, many parents are concerned about letting their kids play freely outside. The boom in technology, including computers, television, and electronic games, has also been a factor in diminished free play among children.
Everything seems to be conspiring to rob today’s children of the concept of “just plain fun.”
Now for the good news: The R21K committee was formed in the Spring of 2007 by the Chappaqua PTA. The R21K committee works with the schools, administration and staff, as well as other community institutions, to provide programming and parent education geared toward the issues and challenges facing parents in an increasingly complex world. According to Victoria Goodman and Lea Barth, co-chairs of R21K, the committee hosts “conversations that count” workshops where parents are given different scenarios which they and their children may face, given their child’s unique developmental stage. The program has created an opportunity to consider stress factors that face our children and to brainstorm about possible strategies to help our kids navigate them.
“Race to Nowhere”
Film Builds Awareness
In addition, R21K screened the documentary “Race to Nowhere” for the Chappaqua community. It is a compelling look at the stressors on today’s children, given academic pressure and extra-curricular involvement. R21K is also hosting a book discussion of Michael Thompson’s “The Pressured Child” as a way to continue the conversation about some themes which emerged from the documentary. R21K continues to compile feedback and information gathered from reaction to the film’s screenings and will report back to the community later this academic year.
Elizabeth O’Toole, RN, and school nurse at Westorchard feels that children experience some level of stress and fatigue from participating in an overwhelming amount of structured activities. “Often,” says Mrs. O’Toole, “these activities are no longer considered fun by the children.” She adds that free-play opportunities often foster “teachable moments.” Dr. Kathy Hirsch, a clinical psychologist in Chappaqua, reports that the whole family may suffer from overscheduling. A child with growing homework demands and many scheduled activities has little or no time to have “downtime,” free-play and family time. Both Hirsch and O’ Toole report that the screening of “Race to Nowhere” has raised awareness about the pressure we apply on children. They agree that the film has generated a lot of dialogue among educators and parents.
As the mother of a 3rd grader and a high school freshman, I admit that I am often challenged to find a proper balance between scheduled activities, homework, and free-play. My hope is that I can meet that challenge while allowing my children to have fun, grow and develop into the people they want to be.
Donna Abemayor is a licensed clinical social worker who resides in Chappaqua with her husband, Eli and two children Amelia and Sammy. She remains enthusiastic about nostalgic games like spud, roller skating, and listening to her cassettes from the seventies and eighties.