Understanding the Value of Play in Childhood

If I asked you about the value of play, how would you respond? According to an article I found on Twitter, the future might hang on your answer. I watch social media closely and it's my job to share some of the hot topics on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and other outlets that teachers, principals, students, and parents are contributing.

Recent reports on the mental health of students (starting in early grades and running all the way through college) are extremely troubling. According to nearly all recent reporst, every single youthful age group is suffering more from depression, anxiety, ADHD, and many other disorders than their 1980 and 1990 counterparts. To see specific examples of reports and experiments, check out this article from Quartz I found on MindShift's Twitter account.

What everyone agrees on is that we have a problem. What isn't agreed on is the solution and the cause. Some blame the recent decline in mental health on the influx of technology, but others argue this started before technology took over. Others say our society focuses too much on external successes that are out of one's control, or recent pressures on younger students to perform at higher levels than in the past are to blame. Another theory states that there is no problem, and the only reason behind the increases in mental disorders is due solely to a new awareness of them. The problem is that there's no way to prove what's causing this. However, there seems to be a general consensus that a lack of play during early childhood is at least part of the cause. Essentially, we need to increase the value of play.

value of play

Today, Kindergarten is treated more like 1st grade. Students are reading and performing math equations rather than playing around. Pushing students earlier might not be a bad thing or the direct cause of our declining mental health, but the loss of unorganized play that comes with the new pushes is causing problems according to most experts. There's an increasing trend in schools and in parenting to micro-manage a child's life. Sending a child to play outside unsupervised is almost unheard of in our paranoid day and age. Children are no longer learning how to deal with anything because schools and parents are setting the rules, dictating what children do with their time, and saving them from every failure (or acting like failure is the absolute end from which you can't come back). This leaves people unable to function normally in social situations once the strings are cut.

At least that's one theory, and it makes sense. The other suggested underlying causes fit the idea that too much micro-managing is leading to the recent rise in mental disorders in young people. External goals, increase in the time school takes in a child's life, and too much technology could all contribute to micro-managing and less unorganized play. Most likely, there isn't one thing you can point too and say “that's the cause,” but it's a conglomeration of issues.

So the next question is what can we do about it? First off, just being aware that this is an issue is a good step. Small steps such as letting students fail without allowing it to mean the end of the world, giving less homework to permit students to have more free time, and giving students more control over their projects (for older students) and more unorganized playtime (for younger students) is a start. We need to believe in the value of play and allow students some freedom to set their own rules and make mistakes in an environment that won't have long-lasting effects if they get something wrong. If that solves the problem, great! If not, then we need to keep investigating why society as a whole keeps getting more depressed and stressed.

What do you think the cause is? Do you have any suggestions to increase overall mental health in students? Do you think lack of play is the issue or is it something else?

Tori Pakizer is the Social Media Editor at SimpleK12.com. She writes regularly about the use of educational technology in K-12 classrooms, and specializes in how teachers use Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and other social media. You can follow Tori and SimpleK12 on Twitter @SimpleK12. If you have ideas for using social media in schools, please send your information or tip to editor@simplek12.com.