When the offspring was younger, he played down in the compound every evening for a few hours. Often he came up, with his chin to his knees because there was no one else down for him to play with. I, on the other hand, would send him down every evening.
“Go down and play,” I would tell him.
“Everyone has got classes or tuitions or something. No one is free to play.”
That got me thinking. What does it mean that children are not free to play? Isn’t play actually the work of children? And what did we make our children lose when we over-scheduled their lives so much that they have no time left to do the one thing that they should be doing, namely, play.
The other thing dragging our kids away from physical play is that nemesis of all parenting, namely gadgets, the internet and video games. Devices. Physical activity levels of children have discernibly decreased given the advent of devices and games, and low data costs. Most of us would agree that kids these days barely play as much as we used to do when we were growing up.
Why would I let my child waste his time playing, one mother told me, when I casually mentioned that I barely saw her son down, when he can do some classes to learn a skill. The child was then barely six years old and had swimming, dancing, karate, computers, skating and not to mention tuitions. He was learning skills no doubt, but was he getting enough play? I doubt it.
Maria Montessori would have had some strong words to say about kids not getting the time to play. Play is what she advocated as something that a child learnt from. A child’s play is how they suss out the world they must navigate independent of their parents as they grow. How they learn to negotiate on the playground, learn the concept of winning and losing, of dealing with bullies, of standing up for oneself, of interpersonal relationships with people other than immediate family, of building up childhood friendships forged in the crucible of teams and best friendships, and second best friendships.
Letting our kids have unstructured play time every single day is perhaps the best thing we could do for them. When they’re playing with other kids, without adults interfering, monitoring and telling them what to do, they’re not just developing physical skills and improving their motor coordination, balancing, speed and flexibility, they’re also doing something critical to their development, they’re learning how to be independent. As the experts call it, self directed executive function. Research bears this out.
Another critical advantage of ‘doing nothing’ and ‘getting bored’ - something most parents seem to be doing their utmost to avoid their kids from being - is that it often directs them to stimulate their imagination and to get creative, to explore, to create, to do something that excites them and that they want to do, not something that an adult is telling them to do. It encourages them to make choices that appeal to them.
Unstructured play is definitely not letting the kids spend that time spaced out in front of gadget. Send them down into the compound, to the park, have them run around, play football, basketball, cricket, cops and robbers, whatever they like.Let the kids be kids, I say.
Let them do nothing with their spare time, except play, if they wish. Let them feel the grass under their feet, the wind in their hair, the sun on their face. Let them learn how to climb a tree, jump a fence, swim in a brook. Take them into nature if you can, where there are no schedules and no gadgets. Let them play unconcerned about whether time has been put to constructive use, like kids should play. There’s time enough for them to be adults.