The Serious Work of Play

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The last precious weeks of summer are upon us… time for a final dip in the pool, a last popsicle in the park, and some eleventh hour speed reading of assigned summer books. The excitement of returning to old friends and new teachers has kids buzzing, but the implicit message in “Back to School” is that playtime is over. While the lazy days of summer rarely mean months of idle lounging, they do provide vital goof-off time… and this unstructured play is something to hold on to year round.

important-free-playWith high-stakes testing and budgets that cut arts, P.E., even recess, kids spend less and less of their school lives engaging in activities that allow for play and discovery… and their creative mental muscles pay the price. In today’s rapidly changing world, kids not only need multiplication facts and rules for comma usage, but they must also be equipped to solve problems yet to be imagined. With schools still hammering away at the 3 R’s of yore, there’s a 4th R our kids desperately need: Reasoning.

This fall, before you whip out the calendar and wedge an hour of intensive Reasoning training between gymnastics and violin, there’s good news! Reasoning and creative thinking develop naturally when kids have real, meaningful problems to solve… and you’d be amazed how many “problems” surface when kids have the freedom to simply muck about and play! Call it what you want… “Goof-Off Hour,” “Let Loose Time…” the important thing is that, as backwards as it sounds, you make time for your kids to do nothing!

Some tips to make free play a part of your life year-round:

Tune Out the B-Word
Often unused to the freedom to simply play, kids may initially throw an, “I’m boooooored” your way. Be strong! Resist the urge to leap in and entertain and let kids figure out how to fill this time. Left to their own devices, our kids are incredibly resourceful self-entertainers! The questions that naturally emerge (How does my fish breathe underwater? What makes a piano work? Where are those ants going? How do you keep beating me at tic-tac-toe?!) open doors for rich exploration, deeper study, and meaningful discovery…without a single workbook or word problem!

Play the Guide on the Side
Check in with your kids. Know what they’re doing when given free reign and look for ways to encourage mini passions! Does s/he race toy cars around the dining room? Challenge your speed demon to build a racetrack and experiment with ramps, turns, even weights to find the fastest way to maneuver through the course… high flying fun, and an intense exercise in early engineering and physics! Poking around the pantry? Encourage an interest in food by mixing up a mean batch of muffins. Exploring what makes them rise can lead to fizzy chemistry fun with baking soda!

Schedule Unscheduled Time
Once school kicks into gear, calendars become a lifeline to juggle our super-scheduled lives. If a blank time slot feels like an invitation to stick in yet another activity, go ahead and book your child some do-nothing time. Put “Brain Play” on the schedule, post it so your kids can see… and keep it sacred!

Show Them How it’s Done
Book yourself some quality down time along with your child. Seeing you make time for activities that excite, inspire, and challenge you sends your child the message that free time is an opportunity to develop and dig deeper into new interests.

One of my favorite quotes states that “Play is the highest form of research.” By respecting the high level brain energy at work when our kids play, we can more easily justify blocking off time to make sure they get down to the tough work of play! Oh, who said that, you ask? Albert Einstein.

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