4 year-old: So, what do you want to do?
10 year-old: I don’t know.
4 year-old: Well, you could be my dog.
10 year-old: Ok.
4 year-old: But this time, you have to behave.
If you live with a preschooler, play is probably the default activity in your home. Make believe, construction, water play and more are staples in our house, even for our thirteen and ten year-olds. Variations of the conversation above, one I overheard a few months ago, occur on a daily basis and the infectious enthusiasm of our youngest is nearly impossible to resist.
Assorted scholars define play differently. I am comfortable with this simple definition of play: play is any freely chosen and self-directed activity. Soccer practice, while hopefully fun, is not play. A neighborhood whiffle ball tournament with group-decided bases and imaginary all-star players is play.
While we live in an era in which play and free time have been marginalized, I am thrilled to see the increasing attention paid to the vital importance of play. Decades of research1 combined with new studies have confirmed the critical role of play in developing self-control, executive function skills, socio-emotional learning, problem solving, coordination, language processing . . . I could go on. Practicing the art of play is essential to becoming a highly functional human and a positive member of any community.
As a middle school educator, I find myself in conversations with parents who are convinced of the value of play, but are unsure what play might look like for a middle school student. As long as the activity is freely chosen and self-directed, it can be play. Here are a few ideas to help you foster your child’s practice of play:
With a little practice, we can all fall back into the magical – and essential – habit of playing.
1To read some of the research, I recommend the work of Marian Diamond, Alison Gopnik, Jaak Panksepp, Jane Myck-Wayne, Elena Bodrova with Deborah J. Leong, and Laura Schulz with Elizabeth Bonawitz. To read a good survey of the research on play, I recommend the aptly titled Play, by Dr. Stuart Brown.
Stephanie Rafanelli is both a school coach and a parent education facilitator for Challenge Success. Stephanie has been a middle school science and math teacher for nineteen years. In addition to almost two decades in the classroom, she has served as department chair, both academic and also grade level Dean, a parent and faculty educator, and a leader of curriculum reform. She has founded and run several summer and afterschool programs such as Sally Ride Science Camp for Girls and Menlo Summer Explorations. Stephanie is an educational consultant for multiple organizations. When she is not thinking about education, Stephanie is usually creating chaos with her three children.