Monday, January 4, 2016

My reaction to an article posted about children's play.

OMG I don't even know where to start on this one. It's all true! And WAIT... there's more! These are all really hot button issues in my Child Studies program. The decline of play, the rise in importance of "academics," the diagnosis of mental illness at younger and younger ages... it's all connected. This is a VERY long post, but if you are interested, here's why...
The "sense of personal control" idea in the article is dead-on. What is not stated is how this comes to be in the first place. What we see in very young children is that their view of the world is mostly due to what they learn or model from their parents. And what this means is that anxious, depressed parents typically raise children who are more anxious and depressed. And unfortunately, our current lifestyle vs. the one cited in the article (1960s) is most definitely more stressful. Parents, as a result, feel less and less like they have control over their lives and care more about what the article calls "externiality," which also includes extrinsic goals, such as a greater value on materialism (external) and less value on personal worth (internal). This just means what we already know, which is that people who are anxious and depressed usually look outward to validate themselves because they are lacking confidence in themselves. And just like the article states, this trend is rising at an alarming rate through children being so constantly exposed to media. (As an aside, media usage in children is also being cited as a reason for the decline in empathy and ability to relate to others on a pro-social level, but that's a whole other topic for another time.)
So... what does this have to do with play? Quite a bit, actually. On it's simplest level, play is how young children learn. Baby animals (dogs, cats, cows, dolphins, you name it) all play because it's how they develop the skills they will need as adults, and humans are no different. Here again is the emphasis on pro-social behavior. Human beings are social animals. We do not do well in isolation, and in fact up until a few hundred years ago (vs. the hundreds of thousands of years that we have been around as a species) to live apart from our kind was to die. We are hard wired to want to be around each other and to want to get along, because for most of human existence we have had to depend on our group or tribe for survival. Play is the main way that children learn how to communicate, solve problems, and get along with each other, the way humans have done for millennia. Now here comes the current trend in education, which is two-fold:
1. Academics have become so important, that schools have cut into play time (free-choice activities, P.E., creative arts programs, etc.) in order to concentrate more on these.
This is a vicous cycle that keeps feeding itself. It is mostly based on test scores (which, again, standardized testing and the Common Core Standards just being part of the problem, but that's for another time) which determine how well a child is doing academically. However, in our pursuit of better test scores and so-called better academic performance, we have taken away everything about school that is FUN. In pressuring children to perform better, we have also removed the "well-rounded" approach that education used to have, which not only made school fun but was also valued as integral to a child's well-being. I see more and more people trying to justify P.E. and recess programs as being necessary "to combat childhood obesity." Ok, yeah, sure, it does that. But it also provides a break and an outlet from all the testing, all the homework, all the "nose to the grindstone" studying that kids are supposed to be doing because they are being told that they are not performing well enough. Well, guess what: the more they are forced to learn without reprieve the worse they will do because they will get burned out and stop caring. This also ties into the "sense of personal control" issue, and it's just common sense! Keep pushing someone to do something without encouraging or rewarding them, and they are either going to rebel, feel miserable, or stop giving a shit altogether.
2. Play and exploration have become so strict, so regulated, and so controlled, that they hardly even resemble "play" or "exploration" anymore.
I HATE having to explain and/or defend this idea, because Americans as a culture are just not willing to hear it. "Safety" has become the number one priority in education because we are such a litigious society, and no one wants to get sued. Therefore, as the article states, "protecting" the children is rapidly eroding some of the key benefits that children get from play, such as the ability to explore and learn, to problem-solve, to become independent and self-directed, and to feel some control over their lives by nurturing their own interests and learning competency (for example, a child that learns to climb a tree without falling because he has to teach himself to go up the tree, and does so at his own pace and comfort level.) With such tight control over what is supposedly "free" time, it's no wonder that children feel helpless, dejected, lacking a sense of control over themselves, and even depressed. Faced with these circumstances, fewer children even want to "play" during recess or outdoor free choice, but instead plug into media (music, phones, iPads, etc.) because at least in that realm they actually have "free choice" over what they do.
See how destructive these cycles are, and how they are all interrelated? I understand where the confusion comes from, when you look at all these factors as isolated events instead of as pieces of a larger whole. But once again, this is what we are taught from a young age that holds us back from understanding: the linear thought process. Examples are - cause and effect, a + b = c, step-by-step progression, etc. The "well rounded" approach that I talked about above is an example of non-linear thinking, and the "whole child" approach is even better: it tries to integrate many different aspects of a child's life into his/her instruction, including temperament, cultural identity, personal experience and/or competence, and interests. Obviously this is much more difficult at the elementary and above levels, which is why those of us in Child Studies think that it is so important and so beneficial to try implementing these ideals among toddlers and preschoolers. Ignorance in these areas is forgivable, but what I can't stand are educators that, it seems to me, are capitalizing on these current trends by operating "Academy" schools for preschoolers and kindergartners. What I have seen is that among that age group, "academics," such as knowing the alphabet or the rainbow or being able to count is something that can easily be learned later, but that what we call "social competence," such as knowing not to hit other children or knowing how to take turns is only accomplished through play, and cannot really be taught.
Thank you so much if you have read all of this. I am in a Child Studies program, and a lot of this is probably uninteresting to you or seems like information I have regurgitated from my classes. The reality is that I worked with children for years before I went back to school, and what I am learning supports what I have seen with my own eyes, which is why I am so passionate about it and want to share it with anyone who will listen.