Child’s Play

January 29, 2009

Studies have found that unstructured play time is immensely beneficial to children.

I woke up this morning to more hoopla on CNN regarding the peanut plant here in Georgia, responsible for products that tested positive for salmonella prior to distribution. Although the news is getting a little old—it is, after all, just another example of corporate misbehavior of late–I’m glad people are starting to discuss regulatory issues. The chances that the fairly dramatic rise in contaminated food over the last several years is entirely coincidental are pretty low, and we should all be asking why this plant was allowed to continue its operations.

I was a contributing writer for the Contemporary Pediatrics newsletter during the 2006 AAP conference in Atlanta, and attended a briefing regarding the importance of free and unstructured play for children. The statement, presented by Kenneth Ginsburg, MD, MS Ed, FAAP (who was also the lead author of the supporting clinical study), promoted free play as an essential component for cognitive, physical, social, and emotional health in children. This, according to the published study, is particularly true in the academic environment where play has been shown to help children adjust to the school setting as well as enhance “learning readiness, learning behaviors, and problem-solving skills.”

Fast forward to today, and we see that as a society, we haven’t done much to address the issue of declining play time, not just after school, but during school when unstructured play time has been shown to benefit children immensely. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has gotten the rap for much of this issue; it seems we’re so focused on academics and testing that the other “stuff”—namely creative pursuits and recess–get pushed aside.

Meanwhile, researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine have just added an addendum to the list of benefits of free play, letting us know that not only do children learn more when they are allowed play time, they behave better, too.

So, here’s a natural question to ask: Is NCLB actually raising the quality of education for any child, or are we simply slowly driving them crazy? I met a class of 6th graders this week stressed out about remembering the definition of a prepositional object for their upcoming standardized test. Can anyone tell me what the point of defining nebulous grammar constructs is?

For now, the National Education Association seems pleased with Arne Duncan’s vision of NCLB reform. But whether an increase in funding—if that comes to fruition in today’s economy–or relaxing some of the requirements will create more time for free play among students is yet to be seen.

Meanwhile, if you serve an underprivileged area, you might let parents know about organizations like KaBoom, whose mission is to create playgrounds for children who need community play space. If you have any other ideas for promoting play, please say so here.