Fight for their right…TO PLAY!

29 Dec

Frazzled Kid

I hope you are all enjoying your children this vacation. By now, I bet it doesn’t feel much like a vacation. I am sure you have all had your fill of each other. Oh, I hear ya. I, too, have been with my children non-stop for the last 9 days.

While there are only a few days left of this break from school, I’d love to give you a tip to truly enjoy the rest of your vacation. It will sound callous, perhaps even odd. Here goes: leave your kids alone.

What do I mean by this? Do not schedule an activity, do not play with them, and do not turn on the television, video games, or computer. Just let them play. This is tip number one from my list of tips from a couple of blog entries ago: UN-schedule your child.

Some of you may have heard of David Elkind. He is a professor at Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development at Tufts University. He has written many books that have shaped my own perspective as a teacher and parent ever since I was his student.

Here is a statistic Elkind mentions in his book, The Power of Play: “Over the past two decades, children have lost 12 hours of free time a week.” WOW. I’ll give you a moment to digest that. 12 hours.

Where have those 12 hours gone, you may ask? Does the scene in the picture above look at all familiar?

When I think of my happiest memories as a kid, they all involve me playing with my toys and games at home, in the yard, or with friends running around pretending we were teachers, parents, or living in the wild. Why would we knowingly rob our kids of such experiences?

Elkind writes, “…Parents, anxious for their children to succeed in an increasingly competitive global economy, regard play as a luxury that the contemporary child cannot afford.” This statement saddens me every time I read it. And it rings true.

Now, back to you and your kids. Your child probably does enjoy the activities to which you (or someone else) bring her, but I encourage you to think about the schedule you have for your children. Does it include an early bedtime? Does it include quality unstructured time?

Elkind states: “The psychological consequences of the failure to engage in spontaneous, self-initiated play are equally serious, and equally worrisome.”

Kids NEED unstructured time to play alone, with friends or adults in their lives, outside or inside. This time is critical to social, emotional, and intellectual development—to name just a few perks. Kids learn to be creative, solve problems, work through their emotions, and occupy themselves.

As a teacher, I used to offer free choice time each day, regardless of what grade I was teaching. Over the course of ten years, I saw a huge change in how my students reacted. At first, kids were excited and thrilled to have free time with math materials, puzzles, art materials, or just to play “pretend.” As the years went on, free time became stressful.

“Denise, what do I DO??!?! THIS IS SO BORING!” I would say, “Well, what do you play at home when you have down time?” Here is a sampling of the answers: “I never have free time.” “My mom chooses for me.” “I watch television.” “My mom or dad tells me what to do.” And my favorite: “I never choose. Someone always chooses for me. If I think it is boring, they choose something else for me.”


As a parent, I have found the younger my sitters are, the less they are able to actually play with my kids. I have come home to find my girls playing on the babysitter’s phone, the sitter lying on the floor texting while my kids literally run in circles playing around her, and even overheard my kids saying “We don’t actually watch TV too much. We love to play together.”

Just tonight, my husband and I wanted to cuddle on the sofa with the girls and watch a movie. They chose to play family with their toothbrush and toothpaste samples from the dentist. (Yes, it does sound odd to say it out loud but it really is cute. Mr. and Mrs. Mint have a very nice life. Our kids spend hours at a time with free floss and toothbrushes. I kid you not.)

Have you ever thought, “If I don’t plan something for my kids, we will all drive each other nuts”? Before you reach for your car keys, I’d like to leave you with this thought: the more you leave your kids alone, the more independent they will become. Provide them with time to explore all the toys, art materials, dolls, etc. in your house. They will have more ideas than you. There is nothing more fun than sitting back and watching your kids play independently—except maybe the downtime you will get for yourself.

Mark my words, when your child has had the opportunity to create, problem solve, and interact with others, he will enter his academic career with the confidence and skills he needs to succeed. He may not be able to solve quadratic equations or be fluent in three languages at age 4, but I assure you he will be happy and well equipped for his future as a life-long learner and social being.


7 Responses to “Fight for their right…TO PLAY!”

  1. Tricia December 31, 2012 at 4:08 pm #

    Denise, this is great….it’s so funny I always feel guilty when I let Sophie play alone, and with my background I know it is the best thing for her, but thanks for validating! I didn’t know you blogged, so fun to read!

  2. Jen January 1, 2013 at 11:56 am #

    I very rarely play with my kids, and then only when they ask me to. They have some classes, but they also have a lot of downtime. I’ve never seen them bored. I couldn’t say what it helps them learn really, but in my mind the ability to entertain themselves seems like something that’ll always be useful.

    • neesie74 January 1, 2013 at 11:42 pm #

      It will pay off! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  3. Caroline January 8, 2013 at 4:15 pm #

    My 3 1/2 year old twins have really started having wonderful scenarios of pretend play while I’m doing something else (folding laundry, cooking, reading your blog!). They are firemen, cats, butterflys, characters from books…and yes, TV shows. They play hide and seek with each other and Chase the Monster with Daddy. They build “rooms” with legos and “towns” with blocks and drive their matchbox cars around the “buildings”. It’s all so much more fun than the awful gymnastics class we went to 4 times and then quit! 🙂


  1. When in doubt, READ « You can take the teacher out of the classroom… - January 12, 2013

    […] will pick up a love of reading just by seeing you read. Perhaps as you leave them to play alone (see my previous post about the importance of independent play) you can steal away and have some alone time with a good book. The dishes can […]

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