Jun 01

Why are our children playing less, and why is it a problem?

How do children develop the miraculous abilities to love, think, communicate and create as well as to have self-control and compassion for others? Many child development theories focus on one piece of the puzzle – genes, environment, discipline, sensory processing, IQ. But what I feel gives meaning to all parts of this puzzle, what defines your child as a human, and an intelligent, stable, regulated, successful human being, is his or her ability to develop through play.

On a weekly basis, parents ask me; WHY. Why are we seeing all of these learning problems in our schools. Why are so many children needing OT, and other help? And my favourite… In OUR day, these problems didn’t exist…. The problems existed, and we used the same clinical diagnostic tools… So “medicine” hasn’t changed… Maybe to an extent we have become more aware… But one thing is for sure, learning difficulties are more prevalent in our society, and this increase is directionally proportional to the decline of play. Studies and research have shown us this.

So why is it that our children are playing less?

  • Lifestyle
  • Pressure
  • Unconstructive or recreational unconstructive or recreational technology

So many are using unconstructive or recreational technology as a “Free babysitting service”, and with the busy lifestyles that we as parents lead, it’s actually quite understandable. The problem is, it’s not free at all. The payment is waiting for you just around the corner.  We pay with our children’s brain development, their sensory processing, with their attention, their concentration and with their ability for delayed gratification. In fact, clinical and neurological research has concluded that unconstructive or recreational screen time before the age of three actually affects brain development quite significantly.

Compared to TV’s, computers and unconstructive or recreational technology, everyday life is boring. When kids come to the classroom, they are exposed to human voices and what should be adequate visual stimulation as opposed to being bombarded with the fast paced graphic explosions and special effects that they are used to seeing on the screens. After hours of unconstructive or recreational screen time, processing “boring” information in a classroom becomes increasingly challenging for our children, because their brains are desensitized by the high levels of stimulation that screens provide. The inability to process lower levels of stimulation leaves kids vulnerable to academic challenges.

Instead of exposing children to fast-paced graphics and unconstructive technology, rather choose the route of educational technology. Technology is part of our children’s lives, there is no getting away from that. Be intentional about the technology you expose your children to, and monitor the time that they spend using technology, according to WHO guidelines. Be present while your child makes use of technology, so that you can interact and be a part of the experience alongside them. Technology is inevitably part of our children’s lives, and so it is important that they have some exposure to learn, but instead of watching an unconstructive cartoon that will not benefit the child in anyway,  allow them to play an educational game which will contribute to their awareness and proficient use of technology, vital for today’s children, but will not compromise their learning and development.

Our own use of technology also disconnects us emotionally from our children and our families. We as parents, myself included, struggle to disconnect from our devices, and as a result, disconnect ourselves from our children. Parental emotional availability is the main nutrient for child’s brain. Unfortunately, we are gradually depriving our children of that nutrient.

As if unconstructive or recreational screen time wasn’t enough, the academic pressure, on even preschool children is horrifying, and is a huge contributing factor to the decline in play. As parents, we have such a deep desire to enrich our children’s lives in any way possible. To give them an edge before they even get to formal schooling. We put them in to preschools that are academic in nature – the focus on pre-reading, writing, and maths skills. At home, we buy them special puzzles, set up organized play dates with children their age, read to them every night, signed them up for music lessons, put them in dance or soccer lessons, and take them to local museums. Some even do “enrichment classes” with our kids to practice sorting, colouring, counting, numbers, letters, and yes….even to practice sitting, to prepare them for Grade 1.

This all sounds like a recipe for success… All the right ingredients in their basket… Only, it’s not. Yes, some of these children go on to test above average with their academic skills, but they are missing important life skills. Skills that should have been in place and nurtured during the early years.

Children come to school emotionally unavailable for learning. I see this daily in my practice. Teachers tell me: This child is BRIGHT. In fact she exceeds expectations in academic areas. But she is having trouble with basic social skills like sharing and taking turns. She is also having trouble regulating her emotions, managing anxiety, she has sensory issues, and has trouble simply playing by herself, concentrating, persevering with tasks and sitting still for any periods of time! All these things make it IMPOSSIBLE for even the brightest child to learn, and all of these things…. are learnt and developed… through PLAY! Pure and simple.

So so many of our precious children are struggling with these emotional and sensory issues, which in the end actually hinder their ability to learn. This is becoming a growing problem.

A few months ago, I chatted to the headmistress of a preschool. She had been teaching preschoolers for about 35 years and had seen major changes in the social and physical development of children in the past few generations.

“Kids are just different,” she told me. When I asked her to clarify, she said, “They are more easily frustrated – often having outburst for no reason.” She had also observed that children were frequently falling out of their seats, being less attentive, and running into each other and things around the classroom. “Something is wrong- we never saw these issues in the past.”

She went on to complain that even though her school was considered highly progressive, they were still feeling the pressure to limit free play more than she would like in order to meet the growing demands for academic readiness that was expected before children entered Grade 1.

The demands of our Grade 1 curriculum dictate that our preschools HAVE to implement more structured learning so that THEIR pupils are not behind when they enter a formal schooling environment. The pressure is on. We are trying to teach kids to sit still, focus, develop reading, writing and maths skills. We are trying to get them to run, before they can walk. They are not getting a chance to develop the BASIC skills, that will set them up to learn the more advanced ones that we are trying to instil. We are building beautiful walls, with no foundation. Sooner or later, those walls are going to crumble.

As parents and teachers strive to provide increasingly organized learning experiences for children, the opportunities for free play – especially outdoors is becoming less of a priority. Ironically, it is through active free play outdoors where children start to build many of the foundational life skills they need in order to be successful for years to come. Comparative studies have been done in countries like UK, Australia, Iceland and Finland, which concluded that children that were allowed to play MORE than learn, up until Grade 3 level, were still on the same level as their peers when they reached Grade 4, yet had a lower incidence of diagnosis such as ADHD, and had better social and life skills.

In fact, it is before the age of 7 years — ages traditionally known as “pre-academic” — when children desperately need to have a multitude of whole-body sensory experiences on a daily basis in order to develop strong bodies and minds. This is best done outside where the senses are fully ignited and young bodies are challenged by the uneven and unpredictable, ever-changing terrain.

Preschool years are not only optimal for children to learn through play, but also a critical developmental period. If children are not given enough natural movement and play experiences, they start their academic careers with a disadvantage. They are more likely to be clumsy, have difficulty paying attention, trouble controlling their emotions, utilize poor problem-solving methods, and demonstrate difficulties with social interactions. We are consistently seeing sensory, motor, and cognitive issues pop up more and more  in later childhood, partly because of inadequate opportunities to move and play at an early age.

What is our natural instinct as adults when issues arise?

To try and fix the problem that could have been prevented in the first place? When children reach primary school, we take them to Play Therapy, Occupational Therapy, physiotherapy, speech therapy, remedial lessons and utilize special exercises in an attempt to “teach” children how to be still and to improve focus.

However, these skills shouldn’t have to be taught, but should have been developed at a young age in the most natural sense — through meaningful play experiences.

If children were given ample opportunities to play outdoors every day with peers, there would be no need for specialized exercises or meditation techniques for the youngest of our society. They would simply develop these skills through play. That’s it. Something that doesn’t need to cost a lot of money or require much thought. Children just need the time, the space, and the permission to be kids.

In my next articles, I will be looking at the different  areas affected by Play, or a lack thereof, and how they influence children’s development, as well as ways in which we as parents can be playful, and encourage play in our children. I aim to illustrate to you that all the wonderful things you wish for your child, do not have to be left to chance., intuition or genetic endowment. Nor do they require hours of flash cards, extra murals, educational apps, money and high tech toys. Instead, you will discover, that in my experience, the best way in which to raise happy, joyful, kind, well balanced children, is simply through intentional and incidental play.

Emma Wijnberg
Paediatric Occupational Therapist, Parenting Mentor, Speaker and Sleep Consultant.


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