Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

A Counter-Cultural Approach to Play, Parenting, and Academics

This week's post is really a convergence of thoughts that have been coalescing in my brain lately. If you read this blog regularly, you know I am a big proponent of play-based education for young children (preschool age) and not pushing academics too soon. This attitude is based on a growing line of research that supports this approach.

Several articles in the media lately have made me think about this approach with an even wider lens.

Ponder this with me: what if a culture of education and parenting that encourages play, movement, not overly pushing academics, and a little risk-taking actually helps our children develop better? 

What if this approach might even reduce some fidgeting and ADHD-type symptoms? Of course, a lot of research needs to be done to support all of these factors together, but there does seems to be a trend in the information we know so far.

- We know that play is crucial for the development of young children. Play actually changes the brain and helps kids learn how to interact with one another. These social skills in turn, predict better academic performance, Play also helps kids learn better by helping their brain focus on what's important.

Studies have shown that children who run and play (not organized sports) at least 70 minutes per day, have improved thinking skills, especially on skills like multitasking.

- Other developed countries like Germany and France do not emphasize and push academics at early ages like we do in the United States. Yet, despite this more laid back approach, their students tend to outperform American students on academic assessments. Many other countries do not even try to teach kids to read until they are 6-7 years old. Some schools in the U.S. try to encourage reading or pre-reading even prior to kindergarten. Note: these countries do tend to be much less socioeconomically, culturally, and ethnically diverse, which puts the U.S. in a different category of educational challenges.

- ADHD is complicated, but some research is showing that the fidgeting behaviors may actually help kids concentrate better than when forced to sit still. The physical movement helps "wake up" what scientists believe to be an "underarousal of the brain." You can clearly see how this finding might relate to a lack of playtime and movement in our society and schools.

- We are beginning to see the value of reasonable risk-taking for kids' development. Although it is difficult as a parent to allow your child to try something new, some degree of physical risk-taking has been linked to better psychological health, confidence, physical coordination, and ironically, less dangerous risk-taking later on.

- In a related issue, we are beginning to see the hazards of "overparenting." The first generation of children raised by "helicopter parents" are now entering college and some of what college professors are seeing is not promising. Many young adults are entering college are anxious, depressed, and unable to function well without a parent directing their lives.

After reviewing these findings, you can see how all these factors seem to center on ideas that are somewhat countercultural in our society: movement, imagination, risk, letting go. Imagine an education and parenting culture in which getting your kid to read by kindergarten was not demanded. Imagine what school would look like if kids were allowed ample time to play and move (even within the classroom perhaps). Imagine a playground where the words "don't climb on that" or "be careful" were rarely heard. Imagine teenagers who were given age-appropriate responsibility to manage some of their own affairs (like filling out their own college application).

We cannot recreate society and education by simply imagining it, but this research should help us all to keep our eyes on the goal. The goal for me is to help my children development in a way that represents the best of their abilities, personality and uniqueness. But my other goal is to raise a child that turns into a responsible, kind, well-functioning adult. Sometimes this goal can be clouded by the societal pressures we all experience. I think it's just a good reminder to understand that what might be best for our children, may not always be what our popular culture represents.

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