Healthy Play vs Unhealthy Play

Most of you know how passionate I am about children having childhoods that are as uncontaminated from the toxic influences of the modern world as possible. It is not some sweet nostalgic wander down memory lane, it is a research-supported call to give children the experiences and environments they need to grow themselves!

I attended the “Reclaiming Childhood in the 21st Century Conference” held in Manly earlier this year  (2010) and was intrigued by the address given by Dr Sharna Olfmann from the US.

She reported that half of the world’s children are starving or dying from disease that we know how to prevent. “Millions of children from wealthy nations are routinely subdued by psychiatric drugs so that they can fit into the deadening systems of education while struggling with obesity and consuming hours of violent media every day,” Dr Olfmann said.

She went on to explore the two innate needs of children that, when neglected, threaten their psychological rather than physical integrity. These are the need for loving, reliable and sustained relationships with caregivers and the need for play.

“”Thousands of studies spanning four decades have established incontrovertibly that creative play is a catalyst for social, emotional, moral, motoric, perceptual, intellectual, linguistic and neurological development. Many of our greatest thinkers locate their capacity for original and profound thought in their imaginative abilities, first developed through creative play in early childhood.” Dr Sharna Olfmann

Hallelujah! What we need to clear up is what is play that helps and what is play that hinders or stifles the healthy growth of children?

Common sense would suggest this should not be hard to work out, but I am told often that my version of commonsense is no longer common it has been lost and drowned by the pressures of the consumer-driven, competitive, individualistic world. So maybe I should call it just ancient knowledge that has been lost because we have been raising children for a very long time WITHOUT the appalling mental, social and emotional malaise that we have today.

Play that is healthy for children needs to be mainly child-directed, maybe scaffolded on by adults, but firstly initiated by children.

Children are biologically wired to explore the world so that they learn by REAL experience.

Yes this means that anything that uses a screen or a virtual space is not play – it is a distraction from the real world that seldom builds skills in anything other than controlling remotes or swiping across a screen. TV shuts down children creatively and physically – it is a numbing-from-life instrument!

And as for computers, smart phones and the like, research may show that kids who play computer games a lot CAN do many things at once but the brain does better without being challenged to do many things at once. The only thing these children perform better on is the speed with which they use the control.

Play that helps children grow healthy needs to include time, real things like people, pets, dirt, water, trees and equipment. Some equipment needs to be able to be moved, changed and shifted so that the seeking mechanism in the child’s brain can continue to grow.

You watch an under four-year-old in our safe playgrounds – they will flit from one thing to another, and often want you to push them or watch them. If you allow them to follow their own instincts, they will want to play with another child, find some sand (if there is any) or they simply become bored!

That’s because these safe playgrounds have been designed by adults. I so wish we could bring back the best teachers on the planet for how to take risks for children. The wooden see-saw, the metal maypoles, long monkey bars and sand under the swings. Now that’s where real learning took place under the guise of play! Who needed to be reminded to take care on that see-saw AFTER you have been hit in the chin, or dropped on your wee bottom?

Play that helps children learn about risk-taking, being creative and imaginative (who needs a real horse or gun to play?) having choices and autonomy shows how active children can become when they are really engaged in play.

Play is how we learn to wait, to take turns, to develop the art of strategy, to lose and to win graciously.

Dr Olfmann was so right: childhood needs at least the two basics above the primary ones of food, shelter and safety and that’s lots of loving, consistent care and truck loads of play.

So ancient knowledge is full of wisdom. Raising healthy children does not need TV, computers, iPads, toys with batteries, small backyards, educational toys, structured tasks at playgroup, or get-ahead classes for under fours.

It needs children having childhoods where they have lots of interaction with real living things, opportunities to explore the world and how it works, being outside off the couch, being occasionally bumped and bruised by life, and making mistakes with many, many things and activities.

For those who have not read my Real Kids in an Unreal World book or attended one of my seminars on raising resilient children, I believe there are 10 essential building blocks that children need in childhood so that the bumpy ride through your child’s adolescence, will be bearable and at times wonderful.

Those building blocks are:

  1. Healthy pregnancy
  2. Good nutrition
  3. Safe circle of caring family
  4. Plenty of play
  5. Build life skills
  6. Meaningful involvement
  7. Clear boundaries
  8. Absence of stress
  9. Self-mastery
  10. Strengthen the spirit

These building blocks are proudly based on traditional kinship communities like traditional Aboriginal communities before colonisation. We can still bring these key elements into the modern world as we find it today. Dr Olfmann reassured those of us gathered at the conference that even in the face of the threats of the modern world, we can do better for our children.

Top-down solutions need to be invigorated by caregivers – grass roots, child-honouring efforts to raise a generation who grow up with heart, wisdom and will to build strong and loving communities that embrace diversity, respect nature and take responsibility for all of the world’s children.”

So I leave you with a thought: is your community child honouring? Does it value children?  If a visitor came to your community, how would it know that your community is child friendly? Do we all need overt signs to show how much we value our most precious commodity — our children?