Monday, March 03, 2008

Losing the art of play

Are young children too busy 'achieving' to play?

Early childhood programmes are being set up in America to 'teach' children to play!

The reasoning behind such programmes is that today's young people are too busy to play ( being taken to endless classes by their ambitious parents). Or, just as bad , according to New Zealander Brian Sutton -Smith ( a world wide expert on children's play and games), is the image of isolated play - of young children sitting alone in front of a screen.

A cultural historian, Howard Chudwell, believes that from 1955 , due to the marketing of toys, children's play became focused on the toys themselves. Toys have replaced imaginative improvised activity as the focus of play. New commercial toys provide restricted scripts 'shrinking the size of children's imaginative space' -and owning such toys becomes all important.

Modern parents are increasingly becoming concerned about safety and prefer their children to 'play' in secure safe environments or classes; add to this middle class parents obsession for their children to succeed and free play is seen as waste of time. Such parents prefer extra work for their children on 'learning fundamentals' so as to get ahead.

Psychologist, Elena Bodrova, has researched children's diminishing capacity for self regulation, 'Today's 5 year olds were acting at the level of 3 year olds 60 years ago, and today's 7 year olds were hardly approaching the level of a 5 year old 60 years ago...the results are very sad'.

In earlier times young children played in groups engaging in free wheeling imaginative play, often being 'supervised' by older children.They were pirates or princesses, heroes and villains. While this play might have looked like time spent doing not much at all it built up all sorts of social and thinking skills. What the 'Tools of the Mind' call 'executive functions' including 'working memory and cognitive functions'. The most important being 'self regulation' - the ability for kids 'to control their emotions and behaviour, resist impulses, and exert self control and discipline.' This also includes resiliency - the ability to bounce back after setbacks that occur naturally while playing.

The lack of this ability to self regulate ones behaviour and demonstrate resiliency is associated with high school dropout rates, drugs and crime rates -'good executive behaviour is a better predictor than a child's IQ'.

The changing nature of play means that today's young children are not developing the executive self regulating behaviour they used to, according to many psychological researchers.

This is the reasoning behind the establishing in America of the 'Tools Of the Mind' programmes.

It seems to me that the cure is almost bad as the problem. Young children are being asked to think about their learning 'intentions' and then to write and draw what they plan to achieve during their programmed play!

I guess it is preferable to early childhood centres that are based on inappropriate age based academic programmes in order to push students to achieve. Some call such centres 'kinder factories' where students are directed to endless literacy and numeracy activities.

In 'mind 'tools' centres children are asked the question of the week and 'play games to develop the missing 'executive ' processes to help children learn to listen and control impulsive behaviours. Not even recces is fun, children are asked, 'What do they want to do, and how do they want to do it?' It is suggested that this lack of self regulation shows up in the growing number of students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

Play has never seemed more like work!

Well planned developmentally appropriate programmes, one would have thought, would be the answer. According to Thomas Armstrong , in his book 'Best Schools', believes that lots of free play is the best form of learning for young children and that such play is in line with early brain development. The idea of structuring every minute of a child's time must be stressful for the teachers involved.

The best kind of play costs nothing and only has one main requirement - imagination. When children play together, improvising, making things up, exploring, playing games, they are developing the all important self regulation behaviours. Such activities naturally involve children in facing up to choices and consequences, and to consider others if they want to have as much fun (learning) as possible.

Adults of course play an important role in establishing the conditions and material to entice students to play ( learn) together and their intervention's, if sensitive, are valuable.

There must be line between the structured play of 'Mindtools' and free play - particularly if young children are missing vital 'executive functions'. Well trained teachers will aways be needed to provide learning experiences and to help the students develop appropriate learning habits.

What is required is for students to become so involved that they learn the advantage of sustained concentration rather than flitting form activity to activity. Ensuring students develop such intelligent behaviours is the task of the teacher but does it need to be formalised to pre-planning everything? All children gain pride from doing things well but, in their hurried lives, they often do not have the encouragement or the time. When children want to do something well then this is the time for a bit of help from an adult.

Many teacher of young children in New Zealand express a worry that their students find it hard to keep on task at school and that children with some form of attention deficit disorder are almost epidemic.

Developmentally appropriate programmes, that stimulate, enrich and encourage 'self regulatory' behaviours ought to be a greater priority than literacy and numeracy before overly structured play becomes the new thing to do in New Zealand.

I am all for more play and creativity - activities that lead to the on uncovering of every learners' talents, gifts and passions.


Anonymous said...

Your blog picks up on major societal changes regarding the lives of young children: the commercialisation of play, the 'hurried' aspects of childhood, and the 'press' to get ahead at all costs.

The 'mindtools' programmes have the right intentions but, as you say, seem to go to far.

Good creative develomental programmes, with a focus on personalising learning, would seem to be a better alternative. This is the type of programmes New Zealand teachers used to be good at before the distortion of the age of accountablity.

Our 'new' New Zealand Curriculum is a step in the right direction.

Anonymous said...

Only in America would children need to be taught to play - but the signs of rampant consumerism, precious parents, and the need to get ahead at all costs, are here in middle NZ. Many childhood centres ( 'kinder factories') are already force feeding inappropriate material to their 'clients'!

Bruce said...

Early childhood education has become an industry - little to do with creative education and more to do with babysitting or efforts to gain some academic learning advantage - 'kinderfactories'- all too often with inappropriate progammes.

Anonymous said...

Our schools, at all levels, are full of inappropriate practices - most of them teachers trying to get kids to do things for the teachers reasons. No wonder so many kids 'disengage' or are 'off task'. We should be grateful they do if we want to develop creativity and not conformity.