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Warning: Playing endangered

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Posted: Thursday, September 24, 2009 11:00 pm

Over the years of working with families and children, one common denominator has emerged that warrants all parents’ and educators immediate attention: young children are stressed out from demands at school and home and anxiety disorders are increasing in this population.

Recently I was talking to a 5-year-old girl, who was upset because she couldn’t read as well as others in her class and complained of frequent stomach aches (with no physical basis as of a recent check-up) and insomnia (due to worrying about her homework). When I tried to engage in a game of Candyland, she wanted to know where we could “plug it in.”

Most adults fondly remember kindergarten days as playing with your friends, learning your ABCs, naps and free-time.

Walk in any kindergarten today and see how it has changed: children spend an average of three hours a day on reading, math and test prep and less than half-an-hour on free-(play)time. Recess is very brief and non-existent in middle school. Those same kids are also tied up in after-curricular activities (sports, video games and educational computer games). A striking recent study published in the “Archives of Pediatrics&Adolescent Medicine,” found that almost one in five American 4-year-olds (or nearly half a million) is obese. Type 2 diabetes, once commonly known more of an adult-onset diabetes is being diagnosed in children at an increased rate.

What happened to play time and having fun, why so serious?

Society, school districts and parents are worried children will “fall behind” academically and the pressure is on with standardized testing and push to succeed academically at earlier and earlier ages. Even babies are targeted for marketing of developing precocious skills to be “ready for school,” however, there is ample research that shows most babies are not benefiting intellectually from such early intervention. From a neuro-developmental perspective, specific areas in the brain must be mature and ready to learn specific skills. Try to have a baby sit up at two months of age, it is not possible because specific areas of the brain are underdeveloped and not ready for this activity.

Reading is a very complex skill that requires various areas of the brain to coordinate specific information that typically cannot be processed until a certain age, when the brain is more developed. Pre-reading, language and math skills “naturally” develop when the child interacts with the primary caregiver and, later, with peers via play, song and reading together.

It is time to pull out the dusty findings of decades of research that shows that kids learn best through active, exploratory play rather than by direct, lecture-style classroom instruction with flash cards and computers that push to memorize facts that most young kids are not cognitively ready to comprehend.

Obviously we don’t want early education to consist only of free play, preschoolers who are exposed to social problem-solving, math and reading are better prepared to transition to kindergarten.

The big difference and more positive outcome for pre-schoolers lies in how these objectives are presented and the fact that kids learn in play, which leads to literacy and math skills. Possibly we could lighten things up a bit in the classrooms and take mini breaks of singing a happy song, research supports the fact that kids have relatively short attention spans and will benefit from refocusing activities that remove inner tension and give them a fresh perspective when learning a complex task.

Play is very important for young children for social-emotional and cognitive development and should be incorporated into a child’s academic progress and if not possible at school, try to remember to provide ample time for play at home that includes basic toys such as blocks, a sandbox, board games, pretend play and keep the mood happy by “whistling while you work.”


Astrid Heathcote is a licensed psychologist with a private practice and residence in Ahwatukee Foothills. Reach her at (480) 275-2249 or www.drastrid.org.

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