Parenting is arguably a greater challenge now than at any time in the past century. American adults work longer hours than ever before. Dual-career families are the norm. Worried that our kids will be “left behind,” we schedule almost every waking moment of their lives— school, organized sports, music lessons, sleepovers, summer camps—and rack up miles driving them to and fro. Fearing stranger danger, we keep youngsters locked indoors under effective “house arrest.” Whether or not the statistics support the notion that kids are at higher risk of abduction by strangers (they don’t), this media-catalyzed fear is all too real and deserving of empathy.The demise of outdoor play One of the greatest casualties of this indoor migration is the most quintessential of childhood activities—outdoor play. Overscheduled kids have no time for it. Over-screened kids opt for virtual worlds invented by others. And overprotected kids are kept inside under constant supervision. As the parent of a 12 year-old girl, I have experienced all of these challenges.
I refer here to real play, or free play. Damming streams, building makeshift forts and dens, holding back the tide with castle walls of sand, creating miniature cities in the garden, being a fireman one minute and Tarzan the next, quickly followed by a super hero—these are the kinds of things that make up real play. It is freely chosen and directed by children, with no external goal or reward. And it often occurs outdoors, immersed in all the “loose pieces” and sensory wonders of the natural world.
If you’re over 40 years of age, chances are your childhood was filled with such unfettered, exuberant play. But today, play is fast becoming a “four-letter word,” equated with wasting time.
The benefits of play Play researchers adamantly argue that authentic play is (and has always been) the most critical activity of early childhood, and gives children a number of benefits, including:
So how do we then foster outdoor play while minimizing risks and managing our fears?
1. Practice “hummingbird parenting.” We’ve all heard about helicopter parents, incessantly hovering over their kids, protecting them from any danger. Most of us have an intuitive sense that the helicopter approach isn’t the best way to oversee children, given their growing need for autonomy.
But what’s the alternative? Parent and blogger Michele Whitaker offers a potent alternative—“hummingbird parenting.” Beginning around five or six years of age, children long for some more separation and independence from grown-ups. One of the greatest challenges for parents and other caregivers is to honor this need, fighting the urge to be ever present.
Becoming a hummingbird parent means giving kids space and autonomy to take risks, staying on the periphery sipping nectar most of the time and zooming in only when necessary. If the idea of hanging back makes you nervous, start off close, slowly work your way back, and see how it feels. Monitor how the children are feeling about your distance too. As they get older, increase that separation so as to give kids the freedom to take bigger risks, make some mistakes, and deal with consequences.
In short, the goal should not be to eliminate risk. Children need to learn how to deal with risky circumstances, or face much larger consequences as inexperienced adolescents and adults.
2. Schedule unstructured play. By scheduling in nature play, and developing your flight skills as a hummingbird parent, you can find ways to keep kids safe while allowing them to take appropriate risks and push limits. If we’re successful, the end result will be another generation of confident, free-range kids! Encourage kids to create their own imaginative games and activities, preferably using readily available natural elements—loose parts like water, sticks, dirt, and rocks. Feel free to gather up some of these loose parts or, better yet, have the kids do it. Bigger elements, such as large sticks, can be used for creating makeshift structures, like forts or bridges. Smaller items can be used in an almost infinite array of activities.
3. Let kids engage fully with nature. Too often these days, a child’s encounters with nature are dominated by a look-but-don’t-touch directive. Fearing that we must protect nature and our kids at all cost, we often do far more harm than good. Nature connection depends on firsthand, multisensory encounters. It’s a messy, dirty business—picking leaves and flowers, turning over rocks, holding wriggling worms, and splashing in ponds. Rather than saying “no” every time a child wants to pick up a stick, throw a rock, climb a tree, or jump into the mud, take a deep breath and cheer them on instead. Remember, clothes can be washed, and cuts heal.
Nature connection is a contact sport, and both kids and nature can take it!
Author:Scott Sampson is Vice President of Research and Collections at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. He also serves as host and science advisor of the hit PBS KIDS series, Dinosaur Train, and is author of the new book, How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015). You can follow him on Twitter at @DrScottSampson
As preschools strengthen their academic focus, play maintains a vital role.
Preschool — it’s not just about the sandbox anymore. As elementary school becomes more rigorous, so does preschool. Children are expected to learn certain skills in preschool so that they are prepared for elementary school. Considering the limited time in a preschool setting and the pressure for success later on, where does play fit in?
Play is work for preschoolersChildren are playful by nature. Their earliest experiences exploring with their senses lead them to play, first by themselves and eventually with others. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has included play as a criterion in its accreditation process for programs for young children. “They call it their work,” says Peter Pizzolongo, associate director for professional development at NAEYC. “When they’re learning and playing with joy, then it’s a positive experience. They develop a positive approach to learning.”
The teacher’s role as children growAs children develop, their play becomes more sophisticated. Up until the age of 2, a child plays by himself and has little interaction with others. Soon after, he starts watching other children play but may not join in. This is particularly relevant to kids in multi-age settings where younger children can watch and learn from older preschoolers playing nearby.
Around 2½ to 3 years, a preschooler starts to play sitting next to another child, often someone with similar interests. This naturally shifts, through the use of language, to the beginnings of cooperative play. An adult can facilitate this process by setting up a space for two or more small bodies and helping children find the words to express their questions or needs.
Between 4 and 5 years, preschoolers discover they share similar interests and seek out kids like them. They discuss, negotiate and strategize to create elaborate play scenes; take turns; and work together toward mutual goals.
The preschool teacher’s role in the development of play is critical. “Parents should look to see that the teacher has organized the environment,” says Pizzolongo, “and is using her curriculum in a way that guides her to plan for how the children are going to be engaged in play. It really is a structured way of learning. It just looks like a different structure than what you would see in fourth grade.”
Types of playChildren’s play can be divided into categories, but the types of play often overlap.
Benefits of playThrough play, children develop skills they’ll use in their school years.
PhysicalBoth gross and fine motor development occur through play. When kids play outdoors, if they feel comfortable and supported, they’ll push themselves to new challenges and build motor skills. Developing fine motor skills, such as handling small objects, is a way for children to practice using their hands and fingers, which in turn builds the strength and coordination critical for writing skills. “When you’re a preschooler or toddler, your attention comes out in a different way,” explains Pizzolongo. “Your attention works best if your body is involved, as many parts of it as possible. So children learning to play where they’re physically engaged with materials and interacting with each other would work best.”
LanguageChildren build language skills through cooperative play. Their success depends on their ability and patience in explaining themselves. Teachers repeat the words children say to help others understand. They also teach words about the objects the kids are interested in handling. Students may talk to themselves while playing side by side with other children and then begin to repeat what they hear or start talking to each other. This develops into back-and-forth communication about play, becoming increasingly sophisticated by age 4. Children will now set rules, have specific roles, express their interests or objections, and chatter about funny situations that occur in the course of play.
Self-conceptPlay builds a strong sense of self-confidence. Trying to do a certain trick on a play structure or build with blocks is hard work for a preschooler. Teachers acknowledge these experiences by articulating what they observe and letting the preschooler absorb these accomplishments again. There are also therapeutic benefits to play that help all children. For example, understanding that a parent is going to work and will come back at pick-up time can be reinforced through a play scenario.
Social developmentListening, negotiating, and compromising are challenging for 4- and 5-year-olds. Though children at this age are still egocentric, or unable to think beyond their own needs, working with others helps them develop an awareness of differences in people around them. These experiences in preschool provide a foundation for learning how to solve problems and communicate with peers. Play also helps build positive leadership qualities for children who are naturally inclined to direct but must learn how to control their impulses.
Loss of play laterFor many school-age kids, their time outside of school will include solitary time spent plugged into video games and computers, so it is especially critical for preschoolers to have the opportunity to develop naturally in their play.
Julie Nicholson, an early-childhood instructor at the Mills College School of Education in Oakland, Calif., notes, “We know from decades of research that young children’s play is very beneficial for their development, so we have to look at such immensely important topics as the decrease in children’s outdoor play, the loss of extended periods of unstructured time for children to engage in imaginative play, and the toys being marketed to children that are increasingly violent, sexualized, and closed-ended.”
Ask about play when choosing a preschoolWhen you tour preschools you’re considering, ask about their philosophy about play. Preschoolers need opportunities to play, prepared spaces for them to explore and responsive teachers to support their learning. Such a setting prepares children not only to become students who will work with others cooperatively and approach learning with joy, but also happier people who will not lose
The last few weeks before starting preschool seem to fly by! As you begin the countdown to the first day, here are some things to keep in mind:
During the 2 Weeks Before Preschool Starts:
These strategies can ease the jitters of separating on your child’s first day at preschool.
If your child is starting preschool this fall, you may be approaching this major milestone with conflicting emotions. You’re probably excited about all the fun (you hope) your child will have and the new friends he’ll make. At the same time, you may feel a little sad that your baby is venturing out into the big world without you. These emotions are normal. Your child is also bound to have a host of feelings about this transition, feeling proud to be a big kid but at the same time worried about being separated from you and starting something unfamiliar.
Having Fun with Preschool Prep
There’s a lot you can do in the weeks before to get ready for the big day. But try to keep your efforts low-key. If you make too big a deal out of this milestone, your child may end up being more worried than excited. Here are some ideas to keep the focus on fun.
Your child may also have some questions or concerns about starting preschool, either before or after she starts in the fall. Help her get ready with these two key strategies: