Let the children play

It is a sad reflection of our society that something so intuitive has to be backed by research before parents will sit up and take notice. (Whether they will take heed, is another question altogether.)

So Dr Peter Gray has come out to lobby for less hours of structured school time in the UK, not more. His research shows that time for free, unstructured play by children is crucial to their development as human beings. I think our great great grandmothers since centuries past could have told you that, actually.

But there are good points in his article.

Most problems in life cannot be solved with formulae or memorised answers of the type learnt in school. They require the judgement, wisdom and creative ability that come from life experiences. For children, those experiences are embedded in play.

We no longer need people to follow directions in robot-like ways (we have robots for that), or to perform routine calculations (we have computers for that), or to answer already-answered questions (we have search engines for that).

But we do need people who can ask and seek answers to new questions, solve new problems and anticipate obstacles before they arise. These all require the ability to think creatively. The creative mind is a playful mind.

All young children are creative. In their play and self-directed exploration they create their own mental models of the world around them and also models of imaginary worlds.

The most important skills that children everywhere must learn in order to live happy, productive, moral lives are skills that cannot be taught in school. Such skills cannot be taught at all. They are learned and practised by children in play. These include the abilities to think creatively, to get along with other people and cooperate effectively, and to control their own impulses and emotions.

Even more important than creativity is the capacity to get along with other people, to care about them and to co-operate effectively with them. Children everywhere are born with a strong drive to play with other children and such play is the means by which they acquire social skills and practise fairness and morality. (Which I personally find are both important for life in general, and also for performing well in the workforce.)

He throws a sucker punch mid-way too. First, he explains that animals who have been deprived of the chance to play are found to behave like emotional cripples. When faced with difficult situations, they either freeze in fear, or lash out in unbridled anger. Then he says:

Some people object, on moral grounds, to experiments in which young animals are deprived of play. What a cruel thing to do. But consider this: over the past 50 to 60 years, we have been continuously decreasing the opportunities for our own children to play. School became more onerous, as breaks were reduced, homework piled up, and pressure for high grades increased.

I must say that point hit rather too close to home.

When I was in school, the Singapore education system was already rather grades-focused. But today? I shudder just thinking of how far that has ‘progressed’.

Thus, for our own children, we have tried to stave this pressure off, by eschewing all academic enrichment (outside her 3.5 hours of daily kindergarten), and even the non-academic ones (except for swimming hooray!) for the past 5 years of K’s life, and are likely to do the same for B. (Possibly with the exception of Mandarin, which is a long story for another day.)

So… if anyone’s going to be the next President, it’s gotta be K or B, haha! All they did when they were not eating or sleeping for the first 3 years of their life was play, at random, with whatever they could get their hands on. Sometimes alone, but these days, mostly with each other.

Anyway, it’s nice to feel formally vindicated by this article. Though any parent, searching deep within themselves, will know that this is simple common sense.

Children don’t need classes of all sorts to occupy every waking hour. Babies don’t need the rabid rapid flashing of cards to ‘develop their right brain’ (it’s most effective at developing profits, more like).

They just need to be given the time and space to play. So please. Let our children play.

The kids messing about and making up long stories…

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  7 comments for “Let the children play

  1. January 20, 2014 at 2:36 am

    Love this post and I totally agree. 🙂 my girl is in K1 this year and I am the only one in her preschool who lets her attend half day and brings her home at noon. The teachers keep telling me to switch to full day but I refused. Not only do I think it is crucial to let the siblings spend more time together, I also much prefer bringing the kids out, be it library, park or supermarket, to let them learn about how the world works, to pick up everyday knowledge, to have the freedom to play without worrying about grades. I shudder to think about primary school, but for now, we are enjoying life as it is. Thanks for sharing!

    • January 20, 2014 at 2:47 am

      Your kids are blessed! 🙂

      Guess it’s another reflection of the priorities of our society that the workforce pulls such long hours as a norm, which makes long hours of childcare the only option for some. Ironic that full day childcare is ‘cheaper’ by the hour than half day ones (actually the competition commission should look into that huh). I know of some mums who prefer to send to kindys without full day options so they don’t feel like they are ‘subsidising’ the rest by paying so much more for the half day option!

    • January 20, 2014 at 4:19 am

      Haha yesh I think the school charges us exorbitant rates for half day and keep using that as an excuse to ask me to switch to full. The only reason we are sticking to it is because it is just next block and thus convenient for me and the baby to walk to fetch jiejie, and also because she loves her peers and was horrified when we suggested changing to the newly opened PCF nearby, which I do not know if they offer half day. It always puzzles me as to how full time working mums who drop their kids from 7am-7pm (and make them sleep by 9pm) have enough time to spend bonding with the little ones. But then, this is my view as a SAHM who is totally not interested to go back to work for the time being so I am pretty biased. Haha. =p

  2. January 20, 2014 at 5:24 am

    I can’t agree more, L! There’s so much that happens within a child when he or she gets to engage in free play. As a mum, I wish I had more time to play with them too, especially in the outdoors. Even simple things like running down a steep slope or examining the stuff that grows underneath big trees…I think living in an urban environment these are things we can’t get enough of these days! I also wrote about play here… 🙂 http://www.mamawearpapashirt.com/2013/11/little-lessons-kids-just-wanna-have-fun/

    • January 20, 2014 at 6:42 am

      Yup, I suppose we get intense periods of play when we’re on holiday! So much time to, for instance, stare at ladybugs!

      Thanks for sharing yr post – I left a comment there too! 🙂

  3. January 20, 2014 at 8:11 am

    I really dread Primary school because I am getting the impression that the kids do not get a chance to really play together, even during recess, and that it’s all just sitting quietly.

    • January 20, 2014 at 8:58 am

      That would be awful. I still recall playing “catching” in upper pri, and lying in ambush in stairwells to whack boys with my heavy waterbottle (oops).

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