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How to Let Kids Be Kids

In praise of play

We're missing the point, experts say. "A baby who drops a toy repeatedly out of her crib may be annoying, but she's actually learning about gravity," explains David Elkind, Ph.D., whose recent book, The Power of Play, examines the critical role of unstructured playtime in kids' lives. Play, writes Nancy Carlsson-Paige, in her new book, Taking Back Childhood, "is a powerful vehicle through which [kids] can make sense of their experience, master difficult life events, and build new ideas."

I thought about this idea the other day when a 3-year-old girl came over to our house and began playing with one of my son's plastic sharks. She was making the shark eat plastic insects and fake fish — then spit them out. Then she would make the shark "sleep" on its back. She did this over and over, then finally walked over to her mom and said, "The shark isn't sleeping. The shark died."

"Her grandmother just died," the mom whispered to me. "And before she died, Grandma couldn't eat anything. I guess it's on her mind."

Relentlessly provide your child with homework and structured activities, experts say, and you will be teaching him what to think. Leave plenty of room for self-directed play and unstructured time, and you will be teaching him how to think. "It's in playing that we first learn to think for ourselves, and perhaps only in playing that we can truly be ourselves," says Linn.

Yet parents increasingly can't — or won't — see those benefits. According to research from the University of Michigan on how children ages 3 to 12 spend their time, over the past 20 years there has been a drop of 12 hours a week of free time overall, with unstructured activities like walking or camping falling by 50 percent — and structured sports going up by 50 percent. "I'm amazed by the parents around here that have their kids scheduled all the time," says Julie Bell-Voorhees, a mother of four in Sneads Ferry, NC. "Pick them up at 10, drop them off at 10:30, pick them up again at 2, drop them at another event. It's like we feel we have to have our children's lives mapped out by the time they're 10. Like, 'My kid will play piano, play golf, and speak French.' Where's the fun in that?"

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