Friday, February 29, 2008

Playdate anyone?

A long and somewhat wordy article, in the New York Times, recently tried to champion the importance of play. It seems like playtime has been in the news a lot lately, championed by those who see the cut-back in recess and free-time for physical activities after school hours as a mounting problem for children in this modern age. Will too much "screen time", structured evening activities, and social pressure to be doing something "useful" with their time harm our children's development? What about their futures? Don't they need those piano lessons, sports teams, and educational computer programs? One this is certainly true, children do not get very much time to themselves, to be themselves, without anyone or anything guiding them in what they should be doing, viewing, or practicing.

The Times article discusses how this is being seen as a problem, and how scientists are trying to figure out exactly what the problem is, i.e. what will the deprivation of play time lead to. They listed several logical theories. Play may offer practice for adulthood. It helps a certain part of the brain known for the ability to focus to grow properly. It gives children the opportunity to practice social skills, learn flexibility, and gives an outlet for creativity. It may help in coping with fear, and stress.

The scientists who are observing children's play behavior and are making these judgements are, however, treading on thin ice. Like all social sciences, it is incredibly hard to pin down exactly what is causing the outcome. The main conundrum is this; if a child is deprived of play, are there not other ways that the same results can be accomplished? Will not the child, and the brain adapt? And also, are there perhaps other ways that the same things gained through playing can be accomplished, perhaps more quickly or producing a more balanced result (child)?

The article mentioned the experiments that are being used, and I have to say, I was impressed. Many of them were very thoughtful in how to reduce the extra variables, and still allow enough room for interesting and enlightening results. However, when they try to apply their discoveries on humans, and on a broad scale, the complications multiply. The human brain is an amazing organ with the capacity to heal itself, adapt, and sometimes make miraculous leaps in logic and understanding. In some ways, this makes the study of play even more important! Who knows what imperative developments the brain is making as a boy constructs a "fort", a girl designs clothes for her Barbie, or a group of children invent a new game together?

While I am not particularly fearful that too much structure and screen time will ruin our children, I do think that their brains will eventually fight back. And in some ways I wonder if that isn't what ADHD is? Or what if learning/development is simply delayed? But what if we are triggering more harmful reactions like panic-attacks, high blood pressure, obesity, and depression? Isn't that what we are all really afraid of? That our children will be unable to cope well, and enjoy life?

Isn't that really why we play, in the first place?