Angela Hanscom is a pediatric occupational therapist who has written important (and popular) posts on this blog about child development and the unfortunate way that many schools fail to meet the needs of young children. Her first, in 2014, was titled, “Why so many kids can’t sit still in school today,” and it is still read frequently around the world.

This is her newest look at how schools are not adequately addressing the developmental needs of young children. This one examines the many transitions that kids are asked to make in school and out — even though they may not be ready to make so many.

The trend toward these transitions and away from play-based early-childhood education is a result of the push for a bigger emphasis on academics in earlier grades, which is directly related to the rise in the use of standardized test scores as the most important metric of accountability for schools and teachers.

Apart from the questionable use of the tests, other problems have developed for kids, who, at young ages, are being forced to sit at desks without sufficient breaks even though many do not have the skills to maintain focus for long. That violates what research has shown for many years: that young kids learn best through directed play that allows them to explore and solve problems away from a desk.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, in fact, just released a report that makes this point in its title: “The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children.” It says in part (with footnote removed):

Play is fundamentally important for learning 21st century skills, such as problem solving, collaboration, and creativity, which require the executive functioning skills that are critical for adult success. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child has enshrined the right to engage in play that is appropriate to the age of the child in Article 21.12 In its 2012 exhibit “The Century of the Child: 1900–2000,” the Museum of Modern Art noted, “Play is to the 21st century what work was to industrialization. It demonstrates a way of knowing, doing, and creating value.”

And it says this (with footnotes removed):

The benefits of play are extensive and well documented and include improvements in executive functioning, language, early math skills (numerosity and spatial concepts), social development, peer relations, physical development and health, and enhanced sense of agency. The opposite is also likely true; [neuroscientist and psychologist Jaak] Panksepp suggested that play deprivation is associated with the increasing prevalence of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder

In this post, Hanscom describes why too many transitions are a problem and what schools and parents can do about it. Along with her practice as a pediatric occupational therapist, Hanscom is also the founder of TimberNook, a nature-based development program designed to foster creativity and independent play outdoors. It started in New England and is now in England, a move she describes in this post.

By Angela Hanscom

“Patrick,” a little girl says in her cute British accent, “stay here while I go find Charlotte. We must make a proper home. Come, gather some flowers for decoration.” The little boy smiles and starts picking flowers from a nearby bush, while the girl hums and straightens the homemade curtains.

She gives one last glance of approval at their newly fashioned site and then gallops away on her stick horse to find their playmate.

I’ve been observing from a distance for what seems like only a few minutes as this beautiful scenario unfolds in the woods. I look at my watch. It has been almost an hour! How quickly time goes when children are fully engaged in play.

These same children struggled on day one of the TimberNook program — a nature-based development program for young kids designed to foster independent play outdoors and creativity. It started in the United States and is now making its way to the United Kingdom, and on the day it began, the children were constantly seeking adult reassurance and direction.

Here in London, the concept of time and space in an outdoor program is new. Many children are used to busy and scheduled lives. Yet, we saw growth in play skills in just a day’s time. With practice, it did not take long for the children to come up with their own play ideas, overcome fears and find novel inspiration from the environment.

I kept thinking, “What a precious gift we are giving to these children: The gift of time.” How often do we cut playtime short to interject our own ideas, thoughts and agendas on them?

We have good intentions, yet we have it all backward. We think we are doing children a service by constantly changing activities to keep them engaged and essentially entertained. They are shuffled from one event to the next both at home and at school, leaving little time for imagination, creativity and more advanced social opportunities.

We are often shifting gears every 30 to 60 minutes; however, sometimes we are transitioning kids even more frequently.

These sample kindergarten schedules are a testimony to this:

As you can see, there are 13 or 14 transitions in an average school day for 5-year-olds. The home environment is not much better. We hurry them through meals, homework, and getting changed to get out the door quickly and to our destination.

Why are frequent transitions a problem?

I’ve written extensively about how sensory issues are on the rise in a big way. Children with particular sensory issues, such as having little tolerance for change or trouble regulating their bodies, have a very difficult time with transitions. Sensory issues are also often linked to anxiety. Constantly “changing things up” can create unnecessary stress. Or worse, create complete chaos in the classroom and/or home environment.

I’ve heard of countless tactics to assist children with transitions, such as singing songs in between activities or giving a warning that a transition is coming. Although some of these ideas are clever, most do little to ease the frustration of children, who simply want more time.

Instead of creating special coping mechanisms to deal with so many (often pointless) transitions, what if we simply reduced them?

By constantly shifting gears, children become unregulated, agitated and disorganized. Anxiety and activity levels increase. Kids cry at the drop off a hat; voices get louder. This is NOT the ideal state for learning or living.

If we want to truly foster healthy development, we must slow things down for our children. They weren’t designed to deal with constant interruptions to their day, and neither are adults.

It is critical that we extend the amount of time children engage in both learning and play experiences. Instead of the standard 20-minute recess sessions common in the United States these days, let’s give them at least an hour; better yet, let’s give them two hours each day. The benefits of play are incredibly vast. We are just now unlocking the boundless potential of unrestricted outdoor play. Why limit this?

Also, instead of 30-minute academically focused “centers,” let’s provide extended periods of time in inquiry and child-driven learning opportunities that engage the mind, body and senses.

Let them learn about river ecology by actually visiting a river, dissecting fish and having discussions. Let them learn about trees by climbing them, measuring them, planting them and taking care of them. Let them have real encounters with the real world. It is only then that we will uncap the potential in our children.

Saying “we don’t have enough time” is no longer a reasonable excuse. Time is only a perception. We do have the time to provide rich play and learning experiences. We just need to take a look at our priorities. We need to dive a bit deeper. Activities don’t cut it. Experiences are what our children desperately need and want.

Let us give our children the gift of time and watch them become stronger, healthier and more capable.

They will undoubtedly surprise us every time.