Childhood was different in the ‘60s. Children spent their days in the sunshine, playing backyard cricket or riding bikes around the neighbourhood – often in a motley crew but never in a helmet or sunscreen. Sunscreen was what happened during a lunar eclipse and protective head gear generally took the form of a cap. Worn backwards. And seatbelts? They were a sweet idea, but quite useless if there were a tribe of kids in the back.
We’ve learnt a lot since then and we’ve moved forward in a lot of ways, but we’ve been getting something wrong.
Since the 1960’s, time children spend playing has decreased.
It’s a different world today and it is no longer as safe for kids cruise to through the streets by themselves. There are different challenges and different pulls on our time. Families are busy, mums and dads are busy, kids are busy. One thing that hasn’t changed since the 60s is the critical role of play in developing little people into healthy, vibrant, thriving, healthy bigger ones. It’s up there with education, love and sleep.
How free play builds healthy, vibrant humans.
Free play is critical for children to learn the skills that are essential to life – skills that cannot be taught in a more formal, structured setting.
In every way, play is practice for the life. A lot of play involves imitating grown-ups – their work, their roles, the way they interact.
Learning how to play is as important as anything that can come from play. It’s no accident that children will often spend as much time establishing what the play will look like, or the rules of the game, as they do actually playing it. They learn vital social and emotional skills that they could not learn anywhere else – how to get on with others, how to be empathic, nurturing, kind, strong, generous, how to deal with difficult people, how to be a part of something bigger than themselves, how to get their own needs met without crashing the needs of others. Learning how to play is as important as anything that can come from play. We want them to know that life can be fun and a happy, healthy life means being able to tap into that, even as grown-ups. As a part of play, they can’t help but learn.
Play is instinctive and not just for human children – all young mammals play. This shows how important it is to development.
Research has shown that the reason children grow so slowly and are dependent for so long is because the brain is taking so much of the body’s resources, leaving little available for physical growth. At mid-childhood, around the age of 4, the brain is at its busiest, maxing out synapses (connections) and developing more intensely and quickly than it will at any other age. This is when we learn an abundance of skills needed to be successful humans – social skills, curiosity, creativity, problem-solving. The world of a toddler is a busy one – so much to do! There’s a lot to learn at and it’s no accident that this is the age when the need for play is at its peak.
Children are naturally playful. If they have the opportunities to follow the curiosity, do what they enjoy, and discover and experiment with the world around them, they will thrive. Without it, parts of their development will struggle.
Let them play and they’ll thrive. Here’s how.
Children were born to play. Their development depends on it. Provide the opportunities and the development will happen:
Their creativity will flourish.
An extensive body of research has found that over the past few decades the amount of free play for children has reduced. In a study published in the Creativity Learning Journal, respected Professor of Education, Kyung Hee Kim wrote,
‘Since 1990, even as IQ scores have risen, creative thinking scores have significantly decreased. The decrease for kindergartners through third graders was the most significant … children have become less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesizing, and less likely to see things from a different angle.’
Across the board – in business, academia, the arts – creativity has been long been lauded as a critical asset. In an IBM poll, 1500 CEOs were asked to name the best predictor of future success. Their answer? Creativity.
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