Lifestyle

Playtime is elusive, but also essential

Violet O’Connell, 3, of Jamaica Plain has a blast onahand-powered cycle.

DINA RUDICK/GLOBE STAFF

Violet O’Connell, 3, of Jamaica Plain has a blast on a hand-powered cycle.

My 2-year-old squats behind the birch tree in our front yard. “Hide from me!” he squeals. I’m toting his backpack, lunchbox, and four construction paper drawings he made at school, but I awkwardly maneuver behind a bush. “Now my turn!” he squeals, darting behind a branch. My heart sinks.

“Come on,” I say, trying to sound peppy. “Want to go inside and watch Dora? How about a snack?”

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“Five more minutes! Just five more minutes outside! Please?”

I’m trying to savor the moment, but here in the front yard — dirt on my knees and springtime sun shining — I’m lying to myself. I honestly can’t wait to hustle him inside to watch Dora the Explorer for a precious half-hour so I can get dinner started, write some e-mails, and switch the wash.

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Perhaps sensing its modern-age plight, Boston Children’s Museum is celebrating its 100th anniversary this summer and fall with themed exhibits and special events honoring the Power of Play. “Play is the bedrock of what childhood is about,” says Jeri Robinson, the museum’s vice president of early childhood initiatives. “We want to embrace that soulfulness in kids.”

There’s science behind her sentiment. “Play is a fundamental human drive,” says Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play and the author of “Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul.” This is especially true for children. Play is the way children begin to understand the world and their place within it. The American Academy of Pediatrics journal agrees, concluding in 2011: “Play is essential to the social, emotional, cognitive, and physical wellbeing of children beginning in early childhood.”

When scientists and development experts talk about childhood play, they’re referring to imaginative, hands-on, primal fun. “It’s the drive toward novelty, understanding it and mastering it,” says Brown. “It’s generated from within, from the curiosity and emotion of child,” whether that means an impromptu game of playground tag or imaginative play with Legos or dollhouses. On the other hand, researchers have tied video games and television — also known as “passive play” — to obesity and anxiety, among other ills.

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At its best, play is purposeful joy, and it sets the stage for a successful adulthood. While playing, kids learn how to fend for themselves, collaborate, set limits, and socialize with others — skills that come in handy when navigating careers and family life down the line.

Unfortunately, today play is as elusive as it is essential. Gone are the days of frolicking outside until sunset and impromptu kickball games after school. “Thirty years ago, kids would roam and the message was, ‘Come home before the lights come on,’ says James Siegal, executive vice president of KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit that builds playgrounds and increases play opportunities for kids living in poverty.

Now, myriad factors have encroached on playtime: two-career parents with tight schedules, heightened parental worries over security and bullying, helicoptering caregivers who fear that a bruised knee on the playground is tantamount to a bruised ego, overscheduled children, and schools that want to squeeze out as many academic hours as possible, sometimes reducing recess in the process.

“Kids are spending eight hours a day in front of a screen, and almost half of all low-income kids don’t have recess in school,” says Siegal. National surveys by KaBOOM! state that almost 9 in 10 parents agree that their children spend less time playing outdoors than they did themselves as kids.

There’s also a drive away from “the inherent chaos of anarchy” by some teachers, says Brown. “Wrestling, diving, et cetera, is the norm. It’s important for a child to know how to belong, where they belong in a pack of kids,” he says. “Rather than having free exploration within proper guidelines, play is now getting scripted” to achieve goals like reading and writing on a goal-oriented, time-sensitive schedule.

And finally, there’s that omnipresent bugaboo: technology. As parents across socioeconomic lines swap family time for screen time — maybe to check a work e-mail or, the greatets irony, to post a cheery family photo on Facebook — children sense a shift in parental habits. “It has a profound effect on what kids take in, as they learn what’s significant in their environment,” says Brown.

As playtime opportunities diminish, one thing remains certain: It’s crucial. Last month, a study from Mathematica Policy Research and the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at Stanford University revealed that Playworks, a nonprofit organization that provided recess to low-income elementary schools in 22 US cities, found that the program reduced bullying and enhanced feelings of safety at school, among other benefits. The research suggests that play can be leveraged as a way to reduce social problems.

‘Play is the bedrock of what childhood is about. We want to embrace that soulfulness in kids.’

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To this end, Robinson hopes that the Boston Children’s Museum reminds families that playtime is an organic necessity, not a luxury. But while a museum is designed for special-occasion fun, incorporating play into our hyperscheduled lives, wedged between work and commuting and carpools and dinner, is tougher. But it’s worth it.

Robinson urges parents to “right-size” family life and re-prioritize time together, whether that’s a lazy afternoon at the playground or a night at the museum. (If cost is a concern, go on Friday nights, when admission is $1; also families using a welfare-benefits card are always admitted for $2.) “It’s not about material toys. It’s about the time we spend with our kids,” she says. And, as any parent will tell you, that time goes all too quickly.

“Hide, mom, hide!” my son calls, swinging a pointy stick like a sword.

What about dinner? My phone gyrates with untended texts. I’m harboring low-grade anxiety over a looming deadline. And right on cue, my little toddler, blissfully oblivious to the hassles that plague the adult psyche, dives for his favorite branch. I start up the stairs.

“Just five more minutes!” he begs from his hideout. And a few more years, I think to myself. Five more minutes, and at least a few more years.

Kara Baskin is a regular contributor to the Globe and she writes “The 24-Hour Workday” blog for Boston.com.
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