A new statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics promotes the power of children's play.
Read the study here: The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children
I am not surprised by this statement. Not even one little bit.
The newest educational acronym being tossed around is SEL. SEL stands for Social/Emotional Learning. The acronym is out there in force because we have a problem. Our students are not coming to school demonstrating the same social competencies that we've come to expect in elementary school children. In addition, they're lacking many of the emerging 21st century skills, like age-appropriate problem solving skills, that we used to see in our students just a decade earlier. The article, though lengthy, is a fantastic read. I am going to focus in on just two points made by the authors that i agree with whole-heartedly.
Play really does enhance the development of children. I'm sure that physical education teachers can speak to the physical benefits of play and athletic coaches would likely endorse play because of the physical benefits. As a teacher, I see tremendous benefits too. Many were outlined in the statement. Play helps children to grow more creative. They are more effective problem-solvers, communicators, and decision-makers as a result of play.
The article was explicit in defining play. The benefits were extensive. However, the barriers are real too. Two such barriers are prevalent in the communities where I live and teach.
Technology: Technology in all of its forms has gone a far way in making our lives more productive, entertaining, efficient, and fun. However, I believe that technology is having a very negative impact on our children's social/emotional learning. Back in my day (I was born in 1972) we played outside from morning till the street lights came on. We were allowed home for meals but that was it. We played outside in the neighborhood with our friends. We were engaged in constant social/emotional learning as we communicated, problem solved, creatively made up games and activities, etc. We knew when we had made a social misstep because our friends became mad or upset. We could see the consequences of our actions. With the proliferation of technology integration, students are often happy to sit at home interacting with friends over devices. There are many reasons why this is a bad idea with the least of which being the lack of physical exercise many kids are getting. Most concerning is that children are not seeing the impact of their words and actions on others. I don't believe that children are setting out to be intentionally rude online. They just never see the reaction to their words or actions. Having opportunities to practice social skills is important in the development of those skills. Given limited meaningful practice, it is no wonder we are seeing a sharp drop in skills. Our students are not learning empathy through online gaming or social media platforms.
Playdates and playing sports. Structured play is not the same as free play designed by children. Today's children are scheduled to death. Many play multiple sports per season. Parents have the best of intentions, really. They are trying to endorse an active lifestyle by signing their children up for all kinds of sports. Busy parents who feel bad because they're unable to spend a lot of time with their children, try to make up for time lost by offering them enriching activities. Parents invite other children over to play and plan out every detail, ensuring that the event is "quality". Today's parents are scheduling or structuring their child's every waking moment. The child is not developing the executive function skills necessary to thrive. They are not developing as creative solution seekers. They are not developing essential social competencies because there is always an adult present to make sure everything runs smoothly. Today's child doesn't learn how to work to ensure that things go smoothly for themselves.
As is typically the case when I notice a problem, i don't have an answer on the ready. I just know that play is really important. I'll think deeply this year about how I can structure less and give students authentic opportunities for social/emotional learning. I'll let them struggle through the tricky parts on their own. I'll coach them when they need it and cheer them on when they falter and when they succeed. Honestly, I think this business of social/emotional learning needs to be on everyone's radar including both parents and educators. If our kids are learning the social/emotional piece, I feel that all other deep learning is in jeopardy.