Play: prescription for kids

Play: n. recreational activity ; esp. the spontaneous activity of children

Prescription: n. a written direction for a therapeutic or corrective agent ; specifically one for the preparation and use of a medicine

You’ve read about “nature deficit disorder” a term coined by Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods. It refers to the trend of children spending less time outdoors, resulting in a wide range of behavioral problems and loss of appreciation for and understanding of the natural world.

Now we’re worried not just about kids playing outside, we’re worried that they don’t play much, period.  The experts say they need more time from freewheeling play at home and in school.  Not only is it bad for their little psyches, it’s downright unpatriotic as budding American citizens.  The kids will be at a disadvantage in the global economy where creativity, innovation and cooperation are needed.

The National PTA has launched a “Rescuing Recess” campaign. The American Academy of Pediatrics is chiming in with recommendations as well:

*Developing “safe spaces” where children can play freely outdoors in their neighbourhoods.

*Reduce use of “passive entertainment” including TV and computer games.

*Promote use of imagination-nurturing toys such as blocks and dolls.

* Encourage fantasy role-play for preschoolers.

*Let kids play at playgrounds, etc., without feeling their parent is watching every move.

*Don’t insist on playing with your child if he or she is happily playing alone.

All I can say is GOLLY. When I was a kid (and walked five miles barefoot uphill in the snow to school), we had very few toys. My favorite toy was dirt.

I’m not kidding…dirt. Plus a big spoon, a pot or piepan, some rocks, sticks, and a little water. I was as happy as a piglet playing with these magical ingredients.

Inside my sisters and I threw a blanket over the dining room table and played house. We played teacher and practiced writing like grownups – loopy scribbles that we pretended were real words telling real stories.

We each had a large collection of paper dolls. A favorite game was issuing invitations addressed to a particular paper doll: “Martha is invited to a gala weekend in the country. There will be a hunt on Saturday, a ball Saturday night, a swim party on Sunday, followed by a picnic. Please plan your wardrobe accordingly.”

Of course “Martha” may not have come with clothing appropriate for such a weekend, so we’d have to make our own outfits with crayons and scissors.

Fast forward to a feng shui consultation I did a few years ago. Although ten-year-old Janice, the couple’s only child, had recently been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, they wanted me to focus on boosting the flow of wealth into the home.

The house was modest in size and pretension, but there was no place to sit, except at the dining room table. Every chair in the living room had a large stuffed animal in it. The woman had so many potted plants that she spent most of her minimal free time caring for them. And then we went into Janice’s room.

Toys everywhere. EVERYWHERE.  On the chair, on the bed, on the bookcase, spilling out of the toy chest, and all over the floor. Some still in the original box or wrapping. Little Janice sat on the floor, paralyzed by the plethora of toys.

Once in awhile the critical mother-in-law in me overpowers my dispassionate consultant self, and I told the parents that their first priority was to get rid of 90% of the toys and stuffed animals and plants, creating a calm environment so that poor Janice could have space for her self.

They weren’t happy with my analysis. They couldn’t imagine being separated from all this stuff that had taken so long to acquire.  Five years later, I heard that Janice had a bout of depression so severe she was hospitalized.

If I’d known then what was going to happen, I’d have suggested that the family rent an unfurnished home in their neighborhood and move only the most crucial pieces of furniture in from the old house. See how that felt. See how Janice responded. Then maybe add a few favorite books, dolls, etc.  After they adjusted to the spare existence, have an estate sale company sell everything else from the original house.  When it was finally empty, they could move the critical stuff back home from the rental.

Ah, the benefit of hindsight.

7 responses to “Play: prescription for kids

  1. I volunteer one morning a week at the elementary school. We work with children grades 1- 3: reading, spelling, and various activities. Trying to get these children to do anything creative is like pulling teeth. Just trying to get them to make up a sentence using one of their spelling words is a chore. I do wonder how they will ever come up with anything original on their own.
    (We played with dirt too: and with flowers: snap dragons made wonderful finger puppets, as did the flowers of the ‘cigar’ tree (what we called the catalpa)).

    on another note: perhaps a ‘Peter’ post in your future: with the announcement that Peter Orszag has been chosen by Obama as part of his team. Have you heard about Peter Orszag and Peter Diamond’s paper on fixing social security? They actually have a long term plan that would fix it. Not without some sacrifice: but it would work. Maybe we have a chance of actually doing something constructive here. Wouldn’t that be nice?

  2. A Peter post… Good idea.

    I have another Peter to write about as well, one of the two candidates for president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Rev. Peter Morales. The best candidate and also a close friend.

  3. I too loved making mud pies – and climbed trees all the time.

    Poor little Janice!

    I remember despairing that my son preferred his computer and playstation to the garden. It was always a tussle. This year, however, he suddenly changed into an outdoor sports lover and is always walking – just growing up, nothing to do with me.

  4. Yay for MUD!! And climbing trees. I spent a lot of time in one, reading.

    My son however has not yet given up on the computer games…

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  6. This is a great post.

    About four years ago I was so overwhelmed with all the STUFF of my life and family and with the over-programmed life of our 3 kids. My husband and I took a dramatic step: we sold everything and moved to Costa Rica (yeah, we brought the kids, too…)

    We moved to a rural community and sent the kids to the local public school that is too poor to have organized sports…or even a full day of school (no need to call social services–we supplemented with home school).

    And what did the kids do with all that free time? They played and explored and learned Spanish because that’s all their new friends spoke. They learned to surf and swim like fish and play musical instruments. They met indigenous peoples who are near extinction and learned how they live off the land, in harmony with nature. They learned how everything in nature has a purpose. They learned how to use a machete to open a coconut, how to scale a tree to get a great mango, how to MAKE a skateboard out of a piece of driftwood. They rode old boxes down the side of the hill, played hide and seek, made up games and secret languages, created cars out of shoeboxes for their stuffed animals, built forts on rainy days. In short, they had a real childhood.

    We don’t have it all figured out, everything’s not paradise. But what we do know, first-hand, is that you don’t need much to have fun…or to be happy.

    Our main focus here has been learning about nature and coming into harmony with it. Feel free to check out the website and videos I’ve created with my kids about our nature experiences here.

    We’re hoping other kids will be inspired to head out into THEIR own backyard and start exploring the natural world.

    Thanks again for this great post!

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