Children in 2013: Stressed, Anxious and No Time to Play

In 2013 kids are different to when I was a little tyke in the 80s. There is talk amongst teachers and parents that children today are over-scheduled and have inadequate time to explore the world and their own minds through free play time. Do you agree? I spoke with Teacher Lennie to find out why play-based learning is so essential to kids’ development.

You have said that play can indicate the beginnings of empathy as children begin to understand other points of view. You also point out that not all play is kind or inclusive. Do kids work out their ‘pecking order’ via play?

It’s not as easy as working out your pecking order I’ll start with the idea of empathy. Most of the research says that empathy starts at around 4 or 5 when children come out of thinking that they are the only person in the room when they are 2 or 3.

The roots of empathy are when we begin to realize that other people have feelings other people have points of view and they may not be the same as yours. So when children play (especially when there’s social play) the group will tell them what is socially acceptable and what is not.

It’s not a matter of pecking order because that can change. We call them (at age 7) ‘fair-weather friendships’. Through play children learn to actually negotiate and to problem-solve and resolve conflicts. So it’s not so much a social pecking order as social skills. More importantly at this 5-7 age group kids are learning to regulate their emotions and when they are playing they learn that give and take is really important. That they can’t just always have it their own way.

They learn what the skills are to be ‘part of a group’ because that’s actually quite a complex thing. And working interdependently on a common goal.

this is a photo fo chinese kids

There are many different types of play.

There is social play, of which role play is one of them, there’s fantasy play, there’s rough-and-tumble play but yes, the same idea goes through.

The definition of play is really important, especially that play is usually voluntary. And so that doesn’t mean you can’t be invited to play but it brings pleasure, it’s symbolic, it’s process-oriented- people aren’t playing for an end product they are playing for the intrinsic motivation and the joy that play brings in the moment.

Is it important for kids to take risks during play? Do these need to be physical or other risks?

Risk is an important part of learning so if you were to talk about the characteristics of an effective learner then risk taking in learning is actually something you want all young children to do because you want them to be able to say, “I can have a go at that.”

That comes through in their play. In play, anything is possible, so the more they get that sense of optimism in play, that anything is possible, that I can have a go at this, and that if it’s my play it doesn’t matter if it’s a complete and utter disaster because only I’ll be let down or maybe I can think of another way to have a go at it.

When you think about risk taking there’s a certain element of physical risk taking, having been a pre-primary kindergarten teacher I can tell you on the first day when you get a new lot of kids watching them in the playground you have your heart in your mouth because we are in a litigation society so we do have to minimize risks but not so much that the kids are in cotton-wool. But it’s not just physical risks. I talk about intellectual risks, emotional risks….

We aim to promote things like curiosity, persistence, flexibility and resilience. That sense of ‘if it hasn’t worked what do I do next? Not sit down and have a good cry but actually think of another way of having a go at it. Play teaches that.

Does play act as stress relief for kids?

Young children construct knowledge though play so they are acting out their understanding and representing and trying their ideas, their skills, so that’s one way they can stress-release. …. There is also a lot of literature around well-being and that with playing, it brings a naturally intrinsic joy and being with others as we play brings a sense of well-being. They say that when you play, as you get older especially, that you form more optimistic views and that you can find out that difficulties are temporary, they’re specific and they’re actually within your control. So that brings a sense of well-being, so yes it is a stress-release but with the skills you learn through play it can help you have a more optimistic view and a sense of well-being.

In your opinion, are kids more stressed these days? Are we all?

I don’t know if stress is the word they are certainly more time-tabled. Certainly you do find some children with stresses. Children are a little bit more ‘hurried’ as David Elkind says in his book The Hurried Child. We are all working, we’re busy, we have appointments and our children have to come along with that or they’ve got ballet, they’ve got gym, and it’s not always easy to let your child out in the street as it was a generation ago. These days, you can’t let a kid run and play in the park when they are very young. So parents might do some of these things as they provide a safe environment for their kids. But that time for that unhurried play, when it’s voluntary, you decide your own play themes, you establish that – I certainly think the time for that is more diminished.

Thanks for your time, Lennie.


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