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Monique Keiran: Kids’ play is not only fun, it’s necessary

Summer calls. Many youngsters stand at the leading edge of the season and anticipate two months of endless days, sunshine, mucking around and running about.
Summer calls. Many youngsters stand at the leading edge of the season and anticipate two months of endless days, sunshine, mucking around and running about. Two whole months of playing!

Instead, many will endure a packed roster of prebooked, highly managed and directed activities. Many will take part in day camp after day camp, week after week. Many will have formal and informal learning activities thrust upon them.

Most will be signed up for numerous and various pursuits that will keep them occupied and out of trouble until Mom and Dad or the grandparents can take their allotted summer vacations.

Few kids will have much time for play.

Many psychologists consider play an endangered activity. Today’s children experience little free time. They participate in activities, take lessons — even play dates must be scheduled and have unwritten agendas. So much of what kids do comes with explicit expectations, predetermined objectives and the pressing, stress-inducing need to be somewhere at such and such a time, then off to somewhere else for something else, with little time between.

The danger in all this busy-ness, warn child-development experts, is that it comes at the cost of free, creative play. Researchers have long rooted around in the human mind to tease out how play affects kids in the moment, a few months down the road and later on when they become adults.

Play, they’ve found, is essential for children’s social, physical, mental and emotional development and health. Scientists have found that play increases mental and emotional flexibility, creativity and social skills, as well as increasing kids’ abilities to find meaning in experiences, regulate their emotions and stress, express themselves creatively, coherently and spontaneously, and think laterally and divergently.

In the American Journal of Play, editor Scott G. Eberle, who works — or plays — at what might be the funnest, most seriously playful job ever — vice-president of interpretation at the Strong Museum of Play — defines play as any activity that is adaptive and lively, and includes elements of anticipation, surprise, pleasure, understanding, strength and poise.

Most important of all, he says, play always promises fun.

No fun, no play.

One kid’s fun is another kid’s chore. Some consider practising the piano tedious, while others look forward to it. Some shudder at gardening, while others enjoy digging in the dirt. Some loathe cooking, while others can happily muck around in the kitchen for hours. The list goes on.

Play can have rules, as in soccer, baseball or kick-the-can. Or it can be a free-for-all, letting kids spontaneously create their own games. It can involve exploration of new environments, activities or objects, or can take place in familiar places, with familiar pursuits and with or without items. It can be challenging or it can be comfortable. It can be harmless or it can carry potential risk. The variety, including the risk, enables kids to figure out limits and learn to get along and work together.

Of course, risk makes everyone over the age of 25 nervous. We do our darnedest to sanitize play.

It’s one of the reasons we so schedule our kids. If we keep them busy enough, they’ll be too busy and too tired to get up to trouble and hurt themselves or others.

We also cram learning and enrichment into them. Tiger moms and dads want their wee darlings’ genius to be fully realized by the time they hit puberty, if not before.

But that could be creating future generations of mostly un-curious, routine-driven, stressed-out adults. Oh, wait, that’s us.

But there’s hope — even for us. Psychologists recently determined that playfulness in adults has the same immediate positive social, physical, mental and emotional benefits found in kids.

They also showed that even serious, unplayful adults can increase their playfulness quotient by actively engaging in play and having fun — a kind of play therapy.

That is, playing can beget playfulness can beget more playfulness can beget happier, more productive, more creative people.

So this summer, play with your kids. Take time during the weekends and long evenings to engage, be active, be spontaneous and have fun together.

You’ll all enjoy summer more for it.

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