An empty swing, swaying back and forth. We all know what it represents. It is loss made visible — media shorthand for a missing child. Yet if you’ve been to any playgrounds lately, you may have noticed that empty swings are increasingly common for another reason.
Playgrounds have been emptying over the past generation as kids head off to supervised activities or screen time, and child development types are starting to realize that THAT is a tragedy in its own right. Kids need to play not only to be happy and active but also to develop normally, says Hara Estroff Marano, author of the groundbreaking book “A Nation of Wimps.” That’s why all species do it. Many parents think play is less important than “learning,” but what they don’t realize is that play IS learning.
Parents are sacrificing their children’s play time for extracurricular “enrichment,” be it soccer practice or Mandarin lessons, because play isn’t goaloriented and adults are, says Marano. “But it turns out that the best way to prepare kids for the future is to let them play on their own.”
Better than Mandarin lessons?
Well, think about what happens when kids DO frolic. First off, they actually have to come up with something to do. That sounds pretty simple until you realize that most of the time when kids are bored nowadays, they don’t have to come up with anything more than an app. Click on a game, song or movie and entertainment is instantly available — no need to rack the ol’ noggin (or get up off the couch). But if you put an unwired kid on the playground, he’s got to run, climb or daydream to have any fun. That’s a huge lesson to learn: To get out of boredom, DO something; don’t just sit there and watch.
Now, what happens when you add another kid into the mix, which is exactly what playgrounds are for? Ah, here come the big ones:
Creativity: The kids have to come up with a game, be it “fairy princess parade” or tag.
Communication: Is the tree going to be jail or home base? Are both kids fairies, or is one of them Frankenstein’s monster? They’ve got to talk it out.
Control: This is the most important lesson of all. Once kids create their own rules for a game — Six swings and you’re out! First one to the top of the slide is the king! — they adhere to the rules willingly because they want the game to continue. They don’t want to leave the wonderful world they’ve invented.
Learning that kind of self-control is the key to becoming not only a decent playmate but also a decent student (and, later, worker). You’re learning to pay attention, to strive for a goal and to wait your turn — all because you’re having so much fun! “It’s a very subtle trick that nature plays. It uses something that’s NOT goal-oriented to create the very mental machinery to BECOME goal-oriented,” Marano says.
Parents and teachers who see only the non-goaloriented aspect of play — the fact that no one gets a degree in hopscotch — miss the fact that play lays the foundation for educational success. So they bypass that empty playground on their way to the tutoring session and wonder why their kids are so uninterested in their studies — and sometimes uninterested in anything.
The smartest mammals play the most. The smartest parents let their kids play. It is not wasted time; it is educational boot camp that just happens to be the most fun thing on earth.
A mind is a terrible thing to waste. So is a playground. Let’s remember that they go together.
Lenore Skenazy is the author of “Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)” and “Who’s the Blonde That Married What’s-His-Name? The Ultimate Tip-of-the-Tongue Test of Everything You Know You Know — But Can’t Remember Right Now.”