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THE GROWING YEARS

Play is children's work...

ARUNA SANKARANARAYANAN

...said psychologist Edward Zigler. When will we realise the value of unfettered play time for our children?

PHOTO: K. RAMESH BABU

UNSUPERVISED PLAY:This is the way to grow.

School, dance class and Hindi tuition on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; Tennis and keyboard on Tuesdays and Thursdays; Swimming and yoga on weekends... How many children are saddled with schedules like running trains? The remaining “free time” is consumed by homework and preparation for tests.

Many parents intuitively know that their child is being overscheduled. But peer pressure — not only among children, but also parents — compels them to drive their wards from class to class. In today's Blackberry-scheduled world, kids find themselves on a perpetual treadmill. ‘Play', in the old-fashioned sense, has been sidestepped as children keep pace with various activities. If children have any down time at all, they end up slouched on sofas staring at the TV.

Learning a skill

Even though many adults bemoan the lack of playtime, they feel classes like tennis, swimming, dance and art are essential to a child's development. After all, the child is learning a valued skill and as the activity is supervised; parents are assured that the time is well-spent. In today's meritocratic race, where everything is measured, weighed and valued, play doesn't really fit into this scheme as its benefits cannot be easily plotted on a graph.

After all, when Arpita goes for tennis, they have to pay (hence the classes must be worth it), get the coach's feedback (performance has to be appraised) and she can take part in competitive sports (the child can be ranked). Thus, instead of whiling away a Friday evening frivolously dressing up her dolls in Amma's old dupattas or splashing in squishy mud, Arpita's time can be accounted for.

Many parents view extracurricular activities as a constructive substitute for play. Even though many are undertaken as a hobby, the spirit in which they are performed suggests that parents want their children to be benchmarked. Not only do children have to cope with academic pressure, but also have to live up to parental expectations on other fronts.

The main reason why parents enrol children in extracurricular activities is to develop a well-rounded personality. While this is laudable, parents may not realise that providing structure to a child's entire day might rob him of essential survival skills. Play involves cognitive, social and emotional components. As these are the pillars of a fully-rounded personality, play promotes development holistically, as opposed to just honing a particular skill or ability.

Play also tends to be inherently motivating to children. In an interesting experiment, Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer found that using the word ‘play' to describe a task made students put in more effort, persevere longer and enjoy it more than when the same activity was called ‘work'.

Watch a two-year old with a new toy. Within a few hours, sometimes minutes, interest in the toy wanes and they prefer playing with the box instead. One reason why toddlers choose packaging over content is that the box is mutable and provides room for a child's inherent exploratory zeal. The child examines the box from various angles as he bends, folds and tears it. Thus, during play, the child is an active seeker. She wants to discover and make sense of the sights, sounds, smells, contours and textures of her world.

Chance to develop

The very fact that play is largely unsupervised offers children a space in which to develop without direct adult intervention. While parents may ensure children's safety, play thrives best away from prying adult eyes and ears. Studies have found that when children play with each other without adult intervention they learn to communicate clearly and explicitly as there are no adults to infer what they are saying and fill in communication gaps.

The irony is that children today are so busy that they rarely get bored. But they don't know how to occupy themselves during a break as they are reared on routines. An important life skill is learning to deal with boredom and occupying oneself. Sans TV, the Internet and video games, many children don't know how to keep themselves engaged. That's one reason why parents turn to classes, as a means of averting the tantrum starting with “What shall I do?”

The best part of play is that it comes in so many forms and can be engaged in a multitude of situations; a train ride, at a wedding or at a birthday party. Play's various avatars allow children to be themselves and cultivate individual strengths. A gregarious child will blossom amid peers while a quiet reflective child may prefer solitary play for sometime daily. The outdoorsy child can cycle, play hide-and-seek and fly a kite on the beach. The epidemic of juvenile obesity hitting western countries and on the rise in India too may be curbed by allowing children time to run and play outside. On rainy days, board games, fantasy play, and charades can keep children engaged for hours.

When Jatin (the alien) descends from a spaceship, his friends defend Earth vigorously. As Akshara dons the role of teacher, her younger brother acts as a model pupil. Pretend or make-believe provides a forum for children to express themselves creatively, surpassing barriers of age, gender, size, status, time and geography. It can also be cathartic as a child may give vent to emotional baggage. Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky captured the developmental benefits of play succinctly: “As in the focus of a magnifying glass, play contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form and is itself a major source of development.”

Thus, it might be befitting for parents to recalibrate their children's schedules to one or two extracurricular activities and mull over psychologist Edward Zigler's words: “Play is children's work.”

The author is the Director of PRAYATNA, Centre for Educational Assessment and Intervention. E-mail: arunasankara@gmail.com

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