The “lost” art of play

I recently came across this article by psychologist Peter Gray, “The Play Deficit”.   In it he describes some of the difficulties children have as they grow up, due in part to a lack of free play time.  The article makes a case that this lack of “free play”, which is lost as children succumb to being over-scheduled, along with over-protective parenting, is having a detrimental effect on their growth and development.

Coincidentally, I recently had a conversation about “play” with a friend of mine who spoke about a conversation she had with her daughter on the car ride home from playing soccer. On the ride, her daughter asked if she could go out and play when they got home.  It hit her that while she thought that an hour and half of soccer was playtime, her daughter did not.  It was an “ah-ha” moment for her, and now me.

I understand this.  I have young children and in an effort to expose them to a variety of experiences, it is easy to over schedule them.  However, when I think of my childhood, I was able to be involved in activities like sports, cub scouts, town rec, etc and still go play hide and seek, explore the nearby woods, and well, just be a kid.   We must not only allow our children to play, celebrate, and act like kids, we must encourage it – often.

This article brought to mind a post I wrote about a football “scandal” in Massachusetts a couple of years ago.  I encourage folks to read Peter Grey’s article and consider how far we have come from letting kids be kids, especially in the area of play.

Have we lost the ability to celebrate?

Posted on December 11, 2011 by C Sousa

In the local news this past week has been the story of a high school football playoff game.  From all accounts it was a great game, on a great day, between two great teams.  That is until late in the game when the QB of one of the teams raised his hand in triumph as he ran the ball in for a touch-down that would have surely won the game, and a flag was thrown.  The official called his action “intentional celebration/taunting” and marked the ball back at the spot where the offense took place.  The final result of the game was a loss for that team.

The newspapers and radio talk shows were all over this, and opinions varied, but unfortunately the conversation missed the middle ground altogether.  Yes, the athlete who, according to his mother, has moved on from the event and is looking forward to basketball season, did raise his arm in celebration.  And yes, this was the second time he had done so in the game, and so, yes, the official was well within the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association’s scope to enforce the rule.  For the most part, this should be the end of it, done deal, the team lost on a penalty, it happens, and it is a life lesson for the whole team, no matter how difficult it is.  This is, however, not the middle ground I speak of.  I congratulate both teams on a hard-fought game, and I believe that we live with rules and it is our obligation when playing sports, or any organized activity, that we follow not only the rules, but the spirit that the rule was intended to support.  The latter is where the middle ground comes in.

I do not think that this story is really newsworthy all by itself, despite the Mayor of Boston inviting the losing team to come in for lunch and give them “their due”.  But it does raise the question; have we lost sight of who kids are?  In our world of  high stakes testing, “adequate yearly progress”, SINI and DINI labels, and where recess is reduced and homework is increased; have we lost sight of allowing students to celebrate who they are?   Is a hand raised in accomplishment taunting?  As a long time coach, athlete, teacher, and school administrator, I understand that excessive celebration and taunting has no place in children’s sports or in education, but I also believe that we need to celebrate student successes, whether on the field of play or in the classroom.

In this case perhaps it is time for someone to ask the MIAA to examine their rule and to make changes that take into account the true nature of who adolescents are.  Perhaps instead of shouting at the MIAA, what folks need to do is to discuss what is a normal level of expression of joy when we accomplish something we set out to do.  Today in education there are states, districts, and schools, maybe yours or your neighbors, that have seriously restricted our ability to celebrate who students are, what they accomplish, and who they want to be.

My concern is that if we don’t start recognizing the extreme measures we are taking in the name of progress and reform, we will forget about what makes us great; what makes our students want to come to school and learn.  Imagine if we did not allow teachers to “high five” kids who did well on assessments, or learned something really well, accomplished a goal, won a robotics tournament, or played a great game.  Imagine if we did not allow school celebrations for honor roll, art shows, or citizenship.  What if we did not have student actors and musicians come out for a bow at the end of a performance?  How close are we really to being there, what lessons are we teaching our kids?  Where is the middle ground?

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