News - Administration
Starting Out Right
By Deanna Williams, Lower Schools Director
When I was a young girl my mother would put the finishing touches on a tasty meal while she listened to me read. Her job was to create a well-balanced and delectable meal before 5:00. My job was to read as fluently as possible with great inflection. She wasn’t afraid to ask me to reread a passage several times to meet her criteria. At 5:00, like clockwork, the family would gather. It seems now like such an old-fashioned habit but we all loved sitting around the dinner table. We had interesting discussions, heated political conversations, and updates on the newest and latest traveling tips. We would be asked to share our school days, something valuable we had learned, and maybe even a difficulty we had encountered. I have the fondest memories of these conversations.
Our backyard was the neighborhood gathering spot for my friends. My mother and father had prize-winning roses and vegetable gardens in a small, quarantined area of the yard but beyond that fence line was a wonderland of opportunity. This vast arena was my favorite location, known simply as “the field,” where treasure hunts, pirate quests, and private journaling were common occurrences. As children we couldn’t wait to take large boxes, tarps, rope, and plenty of snacks to create the newest living spaces for our field. Parents didn’t venture into this wonderland unless invited to see our innovations. We were creators, imaginative and resourceful, with time on our hands to spend in pure unadulterated play. We spent our time doing what looked like nothing much at all but we were actually improvising and regulating our own play. As I look back on these days as an adult, I smile and giggle, and am filled with a sense of wonder.
Rituals can simplify our lives. My parents may not have known the psychology of what they were doing, but nevertheless they provided opportunities for deep conversation and reflection time for skills learned. Central to my days and those of my siblings was this time to venture and play.
With the structured activities and the strictly scheduled lives that children have these days, many are left without any real time to just play. The American Academy of Pediatrics has cited six reasons for allowing children time to play. This “free play” helps kids:
- to use their creativity and develop their imaginations, dexterity, and other strengths
- to interact with the world around them
- to conquer their fears and build their confidence
- to work in groups so they learn to share and resolve conflicts
- to practice decision-making skills
- to promote healthy brain development
Life is increasingly busy and complicated, but implementing the rituals of family debriefing and simplification allows children to invest in the fun of play. Nourishing the mind with play is one of the necessary building blocks of education. One researcher recently stated, “It’s interesting to me that when we talk about play today, the first thing that comes to mind are toys. Whereas when I would think of play in the 19th century, I would think of activity rather than an object.”
It turns out that all that time spent in “make believe play” actually develops a critical cognitive skill called executive function. One of the central themes of executive function is the ability to self-regulate, or – in other words – the ability to control emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline. It also turns out that “private speech” – children talking to themselves during play – is a great indicator that executive function is truly in place. The best kind of play costs nothing and has only two main requirements: imagination and time to engage. The next time you tell your kids to go out and “play” you can smile , knowing that good old-fashioned play builds serious skills.