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Do your kids free play?

A recent NPR piece touted that "Old-fashioned play builds serious skills", and these serious skills are threatened by the decline in self-regulated play by many children.  Researchers follow the (de-)evoluation of play, from an emphasis on free, improvised play in the first part of the 20th century to more guided, toy-/object-directed play in the second part.  Improvised or self-guided play, researchers say, develops something called "executive function", an ability to control emotions and behavior.  According to the NPR piece, "Poor executive function is associated with high dropout rates, drug use and crime."

Laura emails:

I heard this on NPR, and as a mother of a child with possible Sensory Processing Issues, I found it extremely interesting. There are so many things that are "spelled out" for our children where their toys are concerned, that it isn't that surprising that self regulation is becoming a widespread issue. I'm interested to see what other parents feel about this issue?

Do you agree?  Do you see this happening to our children?  Do you have great ideas to promote [low toy] free play?  Do you think it's not really an issue?


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I guess I've never really thought about "promoting" free play - it's just something my kids (now 5 and 8) do. They go in the backyard (well, when it's not pouring) and make stuff out of sticks, they invent games to play out of household objects (hey! give back that dustpan!) etc.

We don't have a tv, but more than that I think, is the fact that I've never done a lot of playing with them. I don't consider that part of my job (except for the occasional game of Sorry), and it's always been made clear to them that they are to entertain themselves. So they do.

Only on UM would playing with (or without) toys be "an issue."

From watching my kids, (boys, ages 5 and 3), they play with toys--they have action figures, stuffed animals, my older one has a baby doll he named Cutie Munchkin, tons of matchbox cars, all of the usual boy toys. The older one tends to make up the "rules" of play.

But they are also just as apt to climb on the mountain of dirty laundry (yes, it is a mountain, and yes, somehow it is a game, albeit kinda gross--to me), play "house" under some blankets, anything they can think of to run out all of the batteries in my flashlights...and these type of games tend to last a little longer cause the little guy doesn't have to deal with so many of big brother's rules.

It's not so much about "promoting free play" as it is about leaving your kids alone for a little while. Out of boredom come some great kid-play ideas. But once you start building the blanket fort, or whatever, it's no longer "free play" it's a parent-led activity.

there is a really wonderful book called "einstein never used flash cards" that gets into the value behind free play, as well as a lot of other issues around how children learn best. i can't recommend it enough.

also in this vein: http://www.brainchildmag.com/departments/debateyesspring07.asp

Interesting! I think it's great to be reminded that play is more than a short term activity and how kids play affects them long term.

Neither of my kids (2 and 7) have been big on playing on their own. Zinemama made an aha! point for me though because I always feel like it *is* my job to play with them and feel a sense of guilt if I'm not. (maybe that just evolved to get out of house work though?)

In the last few years we have discovered the value of the open-ended toys. I can see their little minds working when they are playing with things that don't "do" anything or toys that have more than one use. It seemed so expensive at first to invest in the wood toys and little silks for dress up but I do see the value now. (Spielwerk in sellwood is great and we find a lot at resale shops.) Nova Naturals online is amazing. Magic Cabin is good too.

Also, I've noticed even if they watch even 30 mins of PBS a day then it kind if shifts things in their mind and they are less likely to come up with stuff to do on their own throughout the day.

KMat, re: your 1st sentence, heh heh, I was thinking the same thing!

But, for those UM ladies & gents who are new to the whole idea of free play, unplay, letting-kids-be-kids play, they-don't-need-structured-toys (or sports, for that matter! ooo, heresy!)-play----there are tons of articles,
"experts'" websites, yahoo-group/ blog/ otherwise-published wisdom out there on the topic. You'll be able to get "solid science-based research," if that's what you, your spouse, or the gift-giving family members need; learn how to support free time for your kids; talk with other parents about challenges, etc.

We're only a handful of yrs into the parenting thing, but never occurred to us (or to the grandparents, for that matter) to rely on limiting, for-one-purpose-only toys; or to always direct and teach how to play; or to insist on structured learning all the time. Sure, our house has toys that are, by definition, non-self-directing, but you'd be surprised what even a little kid will do with a speak-and-say, or whatever that thing is called, beyond just mimic the animal sounds (and the things that puzzle pieces become would make a strictly-by-the-book old-fashioned Montessori teacher pale). Yeah, we go to a class now and then, or run w/a "teachable moment." But, for the most part, our kid soooooooo obviously thrives on independent play & play he initiates, and chats up a storm to himself constantly, and it's sooo clearly beneficial on many levels for him (and charming, too!).

I am, however, looking forward to that ballyhooed self-regulated cleaning-up behavior mentioned in the NPR article....(Then again, both his parents are terrible at that aspect of self-regulation. Hmm............)

We've had an interesting situation at our house over the last few months...after Halloween, I bought a few costumes for $2-3 at Goodwill for Anders to play "dress up" with and he immediately took to a tiger suit. For the last several months, the tiger suit has been the first thing to go on in the am and the last thing to come off before bath, and he'd wear it wherever we'd let him--to the park, store, errands, etc. We thought it was cute, and it did inspire some imaginative play/behavior. However, over time, we noticed that it was definitely stifling his imagination--he got "pigeon holed" if you will and I think he was bored, even though he still adored the suit. We recently put the suit away and his behavior has improved dramatically, and he's back to playing with his legos and trucks on his own again. I generally swap toys in and out of rotation as he loses interest in them, but I never would have thought that I should pack something away that he was still clearly enjoying.

I do think that a modest supply of toys is important to facilitate play, and I've enjoyed seeing Anders change the way that he plays with toys as he's gotten older and more imaginative. We have a mix of wooden and cheap plastic stuff and he plays with both. I buy arts and crafts supplies and books, but I dont buy toys, and whenever he gets new toys we donate some so we're not overflowing with toys here.

We're also pretty balanced and very careful about TV watching. Like Shayne, I've noticed that the more he watches, it does definitely seem to affect his behavior and limit his imagination. However, I've also seen a lot of really neat inspiration from the shows that he enjoys watching--I attribute his LOVE for animals to Diego, and the fun he has with fire engines and boats to two Norwegian shows that he watches, Fireman Sam and Elias, an adorable show about the boats on the fjords in Norway. So again with us, everything in moderation.

I don't understand why this would be an "only at UM" issue? Maybe an "only on NPR" issue? j/k

Really, "play" must be so different for different children everywhere. Some kids do spend their non-school time either watching t.v. or playing video games. I know families who have their house stocked with Disney, or other branded toys. None of those families live in Portland (but I'm sure they're everywhere, I'm just going on my own experiences). My daughter gets a lot of her play ideas from her father and me (and from her friends, and from t.v.), but we also encourage her to fill some of her time with her own ideas. I always kind of consider this as, "allowing her to become uncomfortable". When she gets uncomfortable we often scramble to give her entertainment (play w/ her, turn on the t.v., etc), but if we leave her be it never takes long for her to create something of her own devise.

Sometimes I love to play and sometimes not, and same with her father. My take on it now is that if I want to play, and I'm available, then I play. If I don't want to, or can't, I don't force myself. I do try to honor her offers to play on a pretty regular basis, however; because soon she won't be playing at all, and I will miss this time. And sometimes I have her direct my play, which is a lot of fun too.

I meant to say that some kids spend their ENTIRE non-school time watching tv or playing video games. Probably their parents aren't reading this right now....

I absolutely agree with the premise of the piece. I think many kids today are bombarded with way too much - too many uni-purpose toys, too many hovering (interfering?) adults, too many "learning" classes/videos/etc starting at a very young age. Our policy has been to let the kids be kids.
When I was growing up millions of years ago we just played, you know? With whatever, in whatever ways we could invent. I barely remember parents interfering at all and I wouldn't have wanted them to. It was all self-directed free play. Parents were nearby, we weren't alone, but they weren't in our faces. At night we all read together, there was affection and its not that they were hands-off, they just let us kids be kids while they did their thing, like Zinemama does. Seems good to me!

I guess for us it's a mix -- my sons (6 and 2) have a lot of time to explore, build, craft things on their own, and I'm always amazed by their attention span when I leave them totally alone. Recently, they've been able to really connect with each other during play, which I think is just so great for both of them. We also have time, however, cuddled up on the couch reading stories, or getting out puzzles or other materials so they can learn the alphabet, to read, about science, etc. I then find that whatever we just learned about gets incorporated into the next round of imagination play that they do together (i.e., we read about what causes different storms and then "terrible wind storms" came to topple their Lego buildings).

I do, however, totally relate to the comment about feeling guilt if I'm not constantly playing with them. It's helpful to hear that I'm doing them some good by taking time to make dinner, clean, or read a magazine article. I do wonder if some of this desire to play with our children all of the time comes from being a Gen-Xer -- I read something about how we as parents feel compelled to play with our children far more than our parents did..all very interesting....

I found this article on NPR interesting in a sort of conversation starting way.

The only "character toys" that we have are a smattering of Thomas & friends (the train) and a stuffed Curious George doll. Other than that, it's tonka trucks as opposed to Bob the Builder trucks, stuff like that. The majority of his play is making forts out of pillows and sheets, houses out of boxes, spacesuits out of tin foil and swim goggles. And he plays quite well on his own, making up elaborate story lines and dialogue w/out input from us.

So, while I'm not sure my son's self-regulation issues (at times problematic at school) can be traced back to the causes that article outlines, I did find the article interesting.

Can self-regulation behavior be caused by kids being bombarded with Disney character toys and movie marketing juggernauts? Or could there be a link to the fact our lives are a lot busier, kids are more scheduled, family time on weekends is briefer these days than during our childhoods? Could it be a combination of this and more? I don't know. But I do find it thought provoking.

I agree in general with the premise of the article. Kids have way too much structure in their lives at too early an age. I have lots of thoughts about why that is, but won't go too far into them. My husband and I are always having the debate about toys. He thinks they have too much; I disagree. The toys we have, in my mind, enhance the play. It's all open-ended things that can be used in so many different ways. What they do with these things is up to them. In my mind, it's not the presence of props that is limiting, it's the time factor. I've always been a believer in one structured activity/week to learn social skills (my kids weren't in any type of group care setting before a couple hours/week of preschool this fall) but that's it. And I love to play with them. All the play is guided by them and I'm just along for the ride. Usually "will you play with me" means I have to sit on the floor and ask a question now and then about what he's doing. I'm not allowed to really play much at all. And I find that 10 minutes of this and I can then walk away and they'll play alone much longer. It's how I can best be part of their world.

I just had to chime in to say that I really appreciated Zinemama's comment about "it's not my job to play with my kids." Although I kind of *love* to play, I've seen how my daughter concentrates more and giggles differently in those moments when she thinks I'm not watching. She's doing things to please or interest herself, rather than performing for me. I have to remind myself to back off now and then.

During my social work internship in Houston, I learned a great technique called "floor time" which was originally conceived by Stanley Greenspan. It's about setting aside about 15-30 minutes with your child every night/day where they direct the play entirely and the only rules are those of safety. No phones, no quick chats with your spouse, no answering the door, just full attention on the child as they lead the way. It is so incredible, the reactions some parents I worked with got the first time the phone rang during floor time and they ignored it and let the machine get it. The kids were amazed! It fills them up with self-esteem and a sense of self control. Parents can take turns with the child, or if there is more than one child, they can switch off on different days or do 15 minutes per child each. My friends did this with their 2 kids, one of whom has Asbergers, and the kids loved the full on attention they got nightly. You do use some props/toys during this play time, but they can be used in any way the kid chooses. I did a research project on this technique in school, and found it really was helpful for parents who had children with challenging behaviors. I'm sure there is some information on all this on the internet!

I have honestly not spent too much time thinking about guiding the kids' play, or maybe we just haven't been strategic about it. But, since this post came up last week, I have been taking note of how our daughters (4 and 7) play. We had big chunks of time over the weekend when we were doing our own things around the house and yard. The girls found it easy to play with each other and then independently for these chunks of time. They do a lot of imaginary play (does this count as free play?) and making up of games, scenarios, scenes, reinactments. It is fascinating to watch. Our younger daughter has an active imagination and has an almost endless capacity to play by herself, all pretend stuff with any household item as props.

Not to say that we don't have toys - we have our fair share. But, toys seem to have such a limited life span in keeping interest. The imagination and made-up games are eternally fun.

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