Children's Schedules Not Allowing for Free Play
> 4/4/2007 9:09:14 AM

It is, unfortunately, an all-too-familiar report: not only are our children not getting enough exercise and spending far too much time studying for standardized tests or sitting in front of various screens, but these behaviors also cause them to miss opportunities for the creative, social and physical benefits gained from unstructured play sessions with their peers.

One common opinion voices concern over the restrictions birthed by a widespread fear of litigation. While a child's physical safety is, of course, tantamount, and disastrous inattention leading to injury on the part of our schools should be addressed and punished as such, some parents and community activists complain that paranoia over potential lawsuits has turned school and public playgrounds into boring deserts of gravel and inactivity. Many schools have removed childhood standards like monkey bars and swingsets from their play areas. There's no question that thousands of children are injured on these devices every year, some severely. But small physical and emotional risks are part of a healthy kid's daily life, and a child taught to sacrifice imagination and adventure in the name of safety in all cases will be deprived of that experience. 

A current report in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics reinforces the importance of play on the development of a healthy child, describing how it fosters the development of mental processes such as decision-making and working together with others. And, in line with recent reports about the effects of exercise on brain functions, children who engage in regular physical activity have been shown to score higher on subsequent academic assessments. Many schools, facing pressure to measure up to preset grading standards, have eliminated recess altogether, devoting more time to readying kids for standardized tests that will heavily influence future funding.

But even structured recess environments may be limiting to kids. Adult-organized activities can be enjoyable and beneficial, but they do not allow for the breadth of opportunity or challenge kids to create their own situations for play. Adults who've better mastered balancing work and parenting and want to give their children the best of every opportunity usually raise very well prepared kids, but the line between enrichment and too much of a good thing is not always clear. Leaving children completely unsupervised can obviously, in some cases, lead to potentially significant behavioral problems, but overscheduling is a pratfall easily avoided and it can leave kids without any real opportunity to determine their own interests and learn how to structure their own schedules.

An idea which has been popular in Europe and is now gaining traction in the US after a mid-century falloff is that of the play worker or playground supervisor. These individuals are hired to supervise rather than direct children, ensuring that they use equipment correctly, respect each other and the adults watching them, and refrain from fighting. Some children and their parents do not take to the idea of individuals hired strictly to provide professional oversight, but the practice has been relatively successful and plans for its expansion are in the works.

Of course, the largest responsibility for raising healthy kids most often rests in the home. Parents who do not engage in play with their children leave them less likely to know how to organize it on their own, and excessive reliance on passive entertainments such as internet and video games does not usually contribute to the physical and emotional well-being of the children involved. Parents should schedule productive activities for kids without placing them under undue stress to perform or filling their schedules to the bursting point with activities advertised as necessary.  Time for playing games or watching videos should be allowed within reasonable limits. And media standards should not dictate how one raises one's own child. Inferior parenting is not the result of ignoring repeated news reports and magazine articles about what a child "should" be doing with his or her time. Keeping up with technology and societal trends does not preclude the opportunity to run through the woods or organize activities in the park with other kids. Most would benefit from a little more of that.

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