Play, an essential part of growing up, is often underestimated.
EVERY generation of adults exhibits an irresistible urge to complain about the young. Children have no manners, are undisciplined, can't think critically, pay no attention to their elders and care only about themselves.
Where others see a generation of television-created illiterates, with short attention spans, or video-game addicts, the writer Douglas Rushkoff sees a new edition of humanity. In his book Playing the Future, he says: "Our children may be younger than us, but they are also newer. They are the latest model of human beings, and are equipped with a whole lot of new features. Looking at the world of children is not looking backwards at our own pasts it's looking ahead. They are our evolutionary future".
So where does the issue of playtime fit in in all this?
"Play is serious business for a child," says Dr. Suma Balagopal. The time a child spends in play is a critical part in the developmental process. Playing uses all his senses, and playtime is also a cognitive learning exercise where he is not only taking in information and organising it to solve problems and understand his environment, but also developing social skills and emotional intelligence.
If play can be considered to be an arena where the child can grow and develop, then it is something that happens all the time, says the Chennai-based psychiatrist. It is the vehicle by which children practise at being grown-ups, trying out different roles and working through fantasies and fears. It can be a safety valve in today's world where there is a sensory overload. It is an opportunity for parents to stimulate and guide their children in formulating a world-view, picking up values, shaping attitudes and an approach to life and enhancing self-esteem. It is through play that a child's creativity can be nurtured and he learns to develop empathy, which is the hallmark of a well-adjusted adult.
The cultural idiom, however, is that children are sent off "either downstairs or outside to play. They maybe asked to shut the door and play in their room or even left with hired help for long periods of time.
Assuming basic needs are met, says Dr. Balagopal, what amazes her is "that parents don't seem to think that what goes into their child's head is as important for the child's well-being as what goes into the child's mouth".
If every activity is a game, and play is a continuous process by which children interact with the world around them, then, the role of an adult in helping the child interpret his experiences becomes critical, especially for younger children.
Simple unstructured play materials, an available and willing adult and plenty of imagination provide far more delight and enjoyment than elaborate electronic toys.
Though playtime is being short-changed in school as more emphasis is placed on teaching "the basics" at a younger age, parents must remember that play is not a one-time input. What is important is consistency and quality.
``Let's face it,'' says Dr. Balagopal. ``For many children in our country, childhood is a luxury and playtime is lost in the business of being little adults. Parents are preoccupied with making both ends meet and cannot always ensure that their children have undivided parental attention."
Childhood is fleeting and precious, and parents with the means and opportunity should perhaps refocus on creatively stimulating their children, using play as a medium, and watching their minds blossom.
MURALI N. KRISHNASWAMY
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