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Why adults have to stop trying so darn hard to control how children play


Here’s a new piece from Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist and founder of TimberNook, a nature-based development program designed to foster creativity and independent play outdoors in New England. She has written a number of popular posts on this blog, including “Why so many kids can’t sit still in school today,” as well as “The right — and surprisingly wrong — ways to get kids to sit still in class” and “How schools ruined recess.” This post is the latest in her exploration of the effects on young children of limited movement. Her book, “Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children,” will be published in April 2016.

By Angela Hanscom

“Cut it out!” a little girl screams at the top of her lungs.

“Yeah!” Another girl yells. “Back away!”

I look over in the far corner of the woods to see a small group of girls holding hands and forming what looks to be a wall in front of a teepee they just created. A little boy stands in front of them with a face that is beet red. He is shaking from head to toe.

“I will NOT!” he yells back. “You have to let me play! That is the rules!” He gets dangerously close to them.

The adults observing the children look over at me with worried looks. I instruct them to observe but stay close and hidden among the trees. Secretly, I’m wondering if we should intervene now, but something tells me to wait. The little boy reaches up and tears down a piece of their tepee. “Stop it!” one of the girls yells. They don’t back down. A few more girls come and form a wall with them. The little boy suddenly reaches into their tepee and grabs the “jewels” they have hidden in there and takes off running.

The girls let go of each other’s hands and start chasing after him. They run around and around the trees in hot pursuit of the little boy. He finally comes to a stop and turns to face them. He holds out his hand and says, “FINE! Have them!” He returns the stolen jewels, stomps off, and finally sits down in front of an old oak tree – sulking. The girls resume playing “house” in their tepee.

Not even two minutes pass before one of the girls from the tepee group walks over to where the boy is sitting. She does something that surprises every adult watching. She sits down beside him. She looks him in the eye and starts talking in a quiet voice. He begins to raise his voice again. She patiently puts her hand up and waits for him to stop shouting. He becomes silent. A few minutes later, they get up. She reaches for his hand and leads him over to the group of girls at the tepee. He says something to them and they invite him to play.

[How schools ruined recess]

What if the adults watching had intervened right away? What if we had jumped in as soon as there was a sign of conflict? We could have said, “Be nice girls. Let him play.” Or told the boy to stop yelling, explaining to him that this isn’t the best way to be included. But what would that have accomplished?

In minutes these children learned important life lessons – social emotional skills that are excruciatingly hard to try and teach children. Through this real life experience, they learned how to stand up for themselves, how to work through anger and frustration, and most importantly – they learned empathy.

You can’t role-play empathy! Or lecture children to death on how important it is to include other children. Children need to learn these things through practice. LOTS of it! This is best done through daily play experiences with other children – especially outdoors, where children can roam, explore, and play away from the adult world.

Most children today are spending a majority of their time indoors and under the direct supervision of adults. We are dictating how children spend every waking hour both in school and outside of school. Even their play opportunities are often regulated and controlled by well-meaning adults. Hour-long recess sessions have been reduced to 20-minute rule-infested movement opportunities.

Children are told what they can and can’t play, with many of the traditional games like tag and kickball becoming something of the past. Play dates are organized by adults to keep children entertained, safe, and happy. And what was once a tradition for the kids in the neighborhood to independently walk down to the local water source to play a game of pond hockey, has become an all-consuming hockey travel team where children are ranked and judged based on skill.

In the meantime, teachers are reporting that more and more children are having trouble regulating their emotions in school, struggling with a sense of entitlement, and constantly seeking out adult reassurance with just about any difficulty they encounter. “They constantly tattle on each other,” a teacher reports. Another states, “It is a rare child that does not seek constant guidance from an adult these days.”

Yet, ironically, we continue to seek out information and sign our children up for organized programs that claim to make our children smarter, nicer, more confident, and more socially adept.

The truth is that no adult-led program is perfect and most will not give children these skills. Children need to experience and learn firsthand how to socially interact with others; how to become confident and capable when encountering new situations; and how to develop strong character traits such as generosity and kindness. Similar to learning new motor skills, the more practice children have in child-led play experiences, the more comfortable they will be in varying social situations.

If children truly got hours of free play with friends every day both during school and outside of school, they would learn the essential skills of negotiation, trading, conflict-resolution, empathy, kindness, sharing, compassion, and so much more. All we need to do is stop trying so darn hard to control every outcome of every interaction between children. It is time we step back and let the children play – for this is how they’ll learn to cope in the real world.

 [“Why so many kids can’t sit still in school today]