How to Let Kids Be Kids
By Judith Newman
Even some toddlers these days are overscheduled, overstressed, and overwhelmed. Over it? Here's how you can help your kids recapture the simple pleasures of play.
Scanning the list of after-school activities on a local parenting Website, my heart races a little: What will I do with my boys this year? Swimming ... Spanish immersion ... musical theater ... hmm, how about rock climbing? Given that Gus has inherited my clumsiness, that class might as well be titled "Learning How to Plummet to Your Death." So maybe not. But all my kids' friends — and all my friends' kids — will be learning, seeing, doing. What are my kids going to do, sit around the house and rot like logs?
Henry and Gus are 6. Here's the truth: It's not that tough to amuse a 6-year-old. To my sons, a trip to the butcher's with Mom is still a fine way to while away the time. (Dead things! Guys speaking Italian! Knives!) Yet I always feel a little panicky about whether that's enough. Don't they need more challenge, more stimulation, more variety — just more? So there are the chess lessons, the soccer clinics, the photography classes.... What, I wonder, will they be missing if they come home from first grade and do what I did as a little kid: nothing?
That's my first thought. My second is, What the hell has happened to me?
What's happened, it seems, is that I've drunk the Kool-Aid of modern American parenting. The thinking goes like this: The sooner our children start racking up knowledge and experiences — whether it's learning Mandarin or perfecting their sidestroke — the greater their lifelong chances for happiness and success. (Plus, there's this dirty little secret: A lot of parenting is, not to put too fine a point on it, boring. Which would you rather do: watch your child play in dirt or cheer her on as she learns how to sing "Tomorrow" and make jazz hands at a Broadway Babies class?) Failing to fill your child's life with stimulating organized activities is seen as — well, if not child abuse, at least a form of neglect, because a child's self-worth is directly related to his or her ability to master stuff. The more stuff, the better. Right?
"Well, what kind of mastery are we talking about?" asks Susan Linn, a psychologist at the Judge Baker Children's Center and Harvard Medical School and the author of The Case for Make Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World. "Children learn through playing, through active exploration that feeds their imagination, not by always having others organize the world for them."
Wait. Children learn by hanging out with friends and just playing? Playing? What could a 2-year-old possibly be learning by crawling in and out of a large box, as mine used to do (often ignoring the present that was in the box)? Apparently, a lot. Because that box could be a rocket, or a pirate ship — who knows? Some experts go even further in defense of plain-old play, asserting that too much structured time and too many complicated toys actually impede development.
Hard to believe? Well, maybe that's because many adults have a kind of amnesia about what was important to us growing up. We (and by "we," I mean I) tend to think, Well, it's a tougher world than the one we grew up in, and our kids must learn to compete on the reality show called, um, Reality. So we see unstructured play as a waste of time.