Back in October, I had the privilege of attending a film screening, which was showing Waldorf-educator Kim Hunter’s film, “A Time to Play”. Kim Hunter, a Canadian native, became a Waldorf early childhood educator in 1996, teaching at the Vancouver Waldorf School. She then went on to start a new program at her home on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia in 1999. During her teaching career, Ms. Hunter has been a strong advocate for freedom in the early childhood years, “I have a strong conviction that children should be at home as much as possible when they’re young. Children need time to just ‘be’, to discover out of their own experiences who they are, what they like and what they can do.”
This desire for advocacy for the early childhood years led Ms. Hunter to produce a short documentary film, outlining the need for more freedom in the early years for today’s children. After 20 years in the classroom, she took a year’s sabbatical to tour North America, presenting her film. Ms. Hunter’s passion and advocacy for early childhood recently earned her the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence, which she received from Prime Minister Trudeau on May 12th, 2016. She was one of five early childhood educators from across Canada to receive a certificate of excellence, recognizing their dedication and achievements.
Ms. Hunter’s film talks about the developmental need for allowing young children ample time for unstructured play, and how we need to work as a society at bringing this back as an early childhood priority. “I think the two biggest factors working against our children in today’s world are technology and time.” Kim speaks about the excess amount of time all children, but especially young children (those under the age of 7) are spending not just in school, but also in structured, organized classes and sports. “If we always put children into classes and groups then they never have the opportunity to figure things out on their own. They never have the chance to learn something out of their own curiosity or interest. Many parents in our time feel (consciously or unconsciously) a sense of competitiveness about what their children are doing or learning. In trying to bring our children a wealth of opportunity, we are instead overwhelming them.”
What’s more, we may actually be stifling them – studies have shown that the time children spend playing in organized sports significantly reduces their creativity as young adults. Since the ability to think creatively is considered the best predictor of future achievements, and an excellent indicator of intelligence, this has professionals concerned. On the other hand, time spent playing unstructured sports activities (like pick up hockey or a neighborhood ball game) was actually shown to boost creativity. The proposed reasoning for this is that informal sports offers children the freedom to self-govern, create rules, problem solve and learn to resolve conflicts on their own.
Psychologist Peter Gray, author of the book “Free to Learn”, is especially concerned about the loss of free play in early childhood. In an article titled, “The Play Deficit”, he opens with a memory of his own childhood, one familiar to many of us over the age of 30, but foreign to many of today’s young adults and children, “When I was a child in the 1950’s, we played in mixed-age neighbourhood groups almost every day after school, often until dark. We played all weekend and all summer long. We had time to explore in all sorts of ways, and also time to become bored and figure out how to overcome boredom, time to get into trouble and find our way out of it, time to daydream, time to immerse ourselves in hobbies, and time to read comics and whatever else we wanted to read rather than books assigned to us. What I learned in [my play] has been far more valuable to my adult life than what I learned in school.”
It is unquestionable that children’s opportunities for free play has been declining – developmental psychologist David Elkind reports that children have lost more than 12 hours of free time per week, just in the last 20 years. This is largely due to an increase in the amount of time children spend in school and on homework, and also being increasingly enrolled in adult-directed sports and activities. Unfortunately, the negative consequences go past reduced creativity.
As children’s play has been declining, there has also been a decline in empathy and a rise in narcissism – claims which are backed up by analyzing the results of clinical and standardized questionnaires that have been in use for over 40 years. A study presented at the Association for Psychological Science in 2010 included data from over 14,000 students which showed that students who started college after the year 2000 had empathy levels that were 40% lower than their predecessors.
Maia Szalavtiz, M.D., Ph. D, a neuroscience journalist for TIME Magazine, reflected on the study in an online article, stating that while she felt there were multiple reasons for this decline, one of those reasons is that children today do not spend enough time in free play: “Without unstructured free time with playmates, children simply don’t get to know each other very well. And you can’t learn to connect and care if you don’t practice these things. Free play declined by at least a third between 1981 and 2003 – right when the kids who hit college in 2000 and later were growing up.”
In his article, Dr. Gray states, “Empathy refers to the ability and tendency to see from another person’s point of view and experience what that person experiences. Narcissism refers to inflated self-regard, coupled with a lack of concern for others and an inability to connect emotionally with others. A decline of empathy and a rise in narcissism are exactly what we would expect to see in children who have little opportunity to play socially. Children can’t learn these social skills and values in school, because school is an authoritarian, not a democratic setting.”
He goes on to say, “The reason why play is such a powerful way to impart social skills is that it is voluntary. Players are always free to quit, and if they are unhappy they will. Every player knows that, and so the goal for every player who wants to keep the game going, is to satisfy his or her own needs and desires, while also satisfying those of the other players. Social play involves lots of negotiation and compromise.”
These lessons in independent negotiation and compromise are lost however in school and organized activities, where adults are in charge, where they make decisions for children, problem solve for the children, and have overall control of the setting. Dr. Gray stresses this by saying, “We think of play as childish, but to the child, [free] play is the experience of being like an adult: being self-controlled and responsible. To the degree that we take away play, we deprive children of the ability to practice adulthood.”
Kim Hunter mentions that loss of free play has other negative outcomes as well, “If we don’t have time and space to digest our experiences – which is what unstructured free play offers for children, we become anxious, nervous, stressed and depressed.” We have certainly seen a rise in childhood mental disorders in recent years. Anxiety, depression, eating disorders and suicide are all climbing in our youth. In Canada, suicide accounts for 24% of all deaths in ages 15-24, making it one of the leading causes of death. And while there may be multiple factors, there is a definite correlation between the loss of free play and the rise in mental illness which cannot be discredited. If nothing else, given the rate at which mental illness is occuring in today’s youth, one could argue that we should be striving to increase the amount of free play our children have available as a coping mechanism, instead of decreasing it.
Kim also mentions the importance of free play and sensory and gross motor development. “Playing outside is truly the quintessential childhood experience, and nothing provides more opportunities for gross-motor activity.” In Kim’s school she has a goal of having the children outside for 4-5 hours every day, playing freely. She laughed, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”
Today, researchers are increasingly understanding the role that gross motor activity has on a child’s brain development. Likewise, they are also learning how the lack of gross motor activity affects a child. Ms. Hunter states that when young children do not receive enough active play – whether because of being in school, technology use or not having sufficient time for free play, it is actually impairing their development.
“Studies, one dating back to the 1980s, show a relationship between a lack of gross motor skills and dyslexia/impaired reading.” Ms. Hunter explained that reading is a complex, bi-lateral brain activity, meaning both hemispheres of the brain must be engaged at the same time. Researchers now realize that certain gross motor activities which commonly occur in play, actually help children develop this crucial skill.
Ms. Hunter went on to say that, “Too little movement in the first seven years is often seen in the history of children with ADD, ADHD, and dyslexia. Toddlers and young children shouldn’t sit still! Children need to move their body in order for their brain to develop optimally. If children do not get enough movement when they are young, it’s hard for them to come to stillness later on when we want them to, or when we need them to – such as when they’re in a class of 30 students and they are expected to pay attention and learn.”
In Ms. Hunter’s film, Joy Winchell, a retired teacher, states that ideally children should have blocks of at least 1.5 hours of uninterrupted play. This extended period of time allows play to become more complex and innovative, allowing for more problem solving and creativity. “We have to remember that play is not a break from learning, but rather the very foundation for academic learning.”
Ultimately, what Kim Hunter, and others, want us to learn is – free play is crucial to a child’s physical, emotional, social and cognitive well being, and yet we are increasingly taking it away by keeping our children in school longer, enrolling them in more organized activities and also allowing more screen time. Kim finished by saying, “It is time to create a new paradigm of understanding of this developmental need, and to start creating the time and space for deep, meaningful play for our children.” Their future depends on it.