Sunday 30 December 2012

Do children play enough?

This quote got me thinking...

I believe that those boys who take part in rough, hard play outside of school will not find any need for horse-play in school.

Theodore Roosevelt
American president

There is so much talk about there being more children with diagnoses and "problem" children who can not sit and focus on their school work - and a whole variety of suggestions have been made as to why this is the case - including class size, standardised testing, not enough play/learning through play in school etc etc
What if children are not playing enough outside of school/preschool? Could this be having an impact on what they are doing in school?
Children's days have got longer - often both parents are working so children are required to stay in preschool for longer days or go to after school care. When do they have the time to play freely with their friends?
I remember in my childhood that we would play on the back fields together after school, without adults (in the back garden when we were younger - although my mother still did not participate - she stayed indoors with a window open - listening...). I remember playing in ditches and making mud-pies, making channels like a snake in the long grass, making skiddy patches on the ice, building obstacle courses, dens and pretending to be a show-jumping horse devising all sorts of jumps with brooms and buckets and anything else we could get our hands on. We had free range of a whole neighbourhood. We played, we imagined, we interacted with each other.
Then in school we could sit and listen easier... our bodies satisfied with play, and with the knowledge that we would play again later on after school. 
Do we trust neighbourhoods now to allow our children to explore? Do our children get the freedom that I once had, and many others had in our own childhoods...?
Does giving homework to children shorten further their chances to play?
Is society really more dangerous? Or have we become more afraid? Why?
I live centrally in Stockholm - free range, the way I experienced it, has not happened for my children - I have my own fears - but also where are the other children? Are they all at extra-curricular activities? Organised play by adults. Its always play-dates supervised by parents, not the freedom of play I had as a child.
I am happy that we have a small house in the woods just outside the city - where my children can play freely, explore, imagine, interact. We take friends out there so their interactions are not confined to siblings... Pockets of abandon.
Are we institutionalising childhood? Are we re-defining play? Or are the adults hijacking play?
If children had more freedom to play - and I mean play in its truest form, would it be easier for them to concentrate in school? Was Theodore Roosevelt right? (although it should not be reserved for just boys!!!). Would there be a reduction in diagnoses and "problem" children?

I do not believe in problem children - only in problem situations. We as teachers and parents need to address the situation - what can WE do to change the situation - then try that, reflect, adjust and try again until the situation improves...


  1. Great post Suzanne & loads of food for thought - let's hope that mroe people realise the importance of time to play for all children in 2013.

  2. Yes a great post - I also think that another result of organised play is that children seem to need adult intervention as if they are not sure how to embrace free play.

  3. Wonderful post! I am noticing a a real problem of children not knowing how to play. One of my blogging goals for 2013 is devoting my writing to promoting the value of unstructured play. I think a lot of people just don't realize how important it really is.

  4. Some of the changes which effect children's ability to play are very real. The volume and speed of traffic and the replacement of the child as legitimate occupants of public space with parked cars, has driven play from its former habitat. Other changes are more perceptual, such as the risk of predators. Sue Palmer argues that these are more likely to be found in the bedroom, behind a screen than in the park behind a bush.
    I have not yet found a child that has forgotten how to play, given the right environment, although some of their skills are a bit rusty. You need practice to be a good innovator, a good sharer, a resilient player, a creator of worlds and a communicator of invention.
    The education system has inherited a model of success that failed the business community but is accepted as gospel in the thinking and language of politics and budget holders. It is one that only values what can most easily be measured. I spent six years in a school improvement service and again and again the message was, that only benefits that could be numerically measured had value.
    We must be careful not to blame children for any part of this. It is adults who fail to provide the conditions for play which is the problem. The first level of conditions are I think, time, permission and space. Permission encompasses; getting dirty, resolving difficulties, and taking risks. Lets keep the dialogue going, we have everything to play for!

  5. Excellent post Suzanne. There has to more than coincidence involved when the level sedentry lifestyles have gone up so have diagnoses of 'problem' children. When you do get some of the children out to play who are not use to it, they seem bewildered, not sure what to do or how to do it. We need to begin trusting children once more. Trusting their abilities. Trusting they will make mistakes and learn from them. Trusting them to make decision for themselves. In turn they will trust us.

    With voices like your out there hopefully things are beginning to change for the better.

  6. I am convinced that the lack of free-choice outdoor play makes a huge contribution to children's behaviour and readiness to learn. My experience here is from the UK, as a class teacher, but some aspects are still relevant to Swedish schools.
    When children generally walked to school, or, of dropped off were dropped off early into the playground with minimal supervision (and access to indoors was very restricted) they had the opportunity to interact with both each other and with the environment. Children often met up with other children on the way to school but there was usually an element of choice to this - you could call for friends or take a different route and walk alone (Obviously I am generalising here, there were also plenty of instances of less choice, or more difficult decisions, managing bullying, etc.) A child might rush to school in order to join in the playground society or dawdle to school with their nose in a book (Me!, my mum driving past me on at least one occasion and honking her horn at me because I was going to be late!)
    The last couple of classes I had showed great difficulties in getting into class successfully, and often out of class again for assembly ... chatting in line was the least of it and dodging around in the line to try to get next to specific people to continue conversations another minor infringement. These children were crying out for the opportunity to discuss the previous night's TV, forthcoming holidays or recent trips, sports events and results and so on. In some situations the children were expected to settle down to a 'morning task' immediately and had a restless energy that made it almost impossible to focus (especially on silly little wordsearches ...)
    The only consequences that seemed to be possible for these children who were obviously having such difficulties transitioning to 'school behaviour' were to keep them in at break or other restrictions upon their play, movement and socialising, OK, some of this is understandable once the behaviour had escalated into affecting the safety of other children or disrupting the learning opportunities of all .... BUT ... what these children desperately needed was MORE fresh air, MORE exercise and MORE autonomy. However, by this point the children had lost the bond of trust with the teachers and other personnel - there is no way they could have been sent outside to 'center' using the AMerican term, or to 'regain self-control' as we call it in my house. They could not, by that point, be trusted without close supervision because the restlessness had developed into a lack of consideration for others and a lack of response to rules etc.
    One school I taught at instigated 'Brain Gym' exercises at the beginning of the school day but these were not the answer ... a certain amount of improvement of the learning environment by exercising and bringing the class together in communal activity, but lacking in the freedom of choice, the choosing of levels of social interaction, and the fresh air of outside play.

    My other not to add to this - about children not knowing how to play when given the opportunity - is how horrified I feel that I am having to teach my boys how to construct dens .... No adult ever showed us this! There were always older children around and, in my case, we had a caravan on a site with woodland and the fact that different children were around on different weeks meant that a communal knowledge base was built up and shared amongst the differing combinations of children present. I feel sad that this is lacking for my boys and tread a very fine line between giving them the 'teaching' they need to proceed and backing away ... taking the dog 'round the block' ... trying to get out of earshot so that they can make mistakes, try out possibilities, and problem-solve without an adult present. (They are 7 and 4 years old)

  7. Found this! (through 'Learning for Life' on Facebook, I think)

  8. I feel like now days kids are just stuck in front of their t.v.'s, ipods, gameboys, and everything else electronic. Kids have a whole world to explore, that's the best part about being a kid! I wish I went outside and saw kids playing more but that is becoming rare. I think more kids should get art sets for their birthdays and less video games.