I’ve heard a number of stories on NPR the past few years about the high value of free-play for small children. The expert in one of these stories told about a study that showed the difference researchers have found over the years in children’s capability of self-control. During the first study, done some years ago, they recorded how long a 3, 5, and I think a 7 year old could stand still. Not surprisingly, each age stood still longer than the one before it. But, in the most recent study, the 3s couldn’t stand still at all, and the 5s were standing still as long as the 3s in the first study.
What they attributed this to was the rigid scheduling that small children seem to be subjected to more these days and how little little kids actually get the chance to just play. That is, someone else is always controlling a child’s play time, telling them what to do rather than letting the child “play pretend.” Free-play, the expert said (and this is backed up by empirical evidence and all the scholarly literature you can imagine), is essential for children to develop their inner monlogue, because our inner monologue (which has a fancier name that I can’t think of right now) is what controls or gives us self-discipline. It’s how we learn to relate to others and to refrain from doing the wrong thing and making correct choices.
In other words, it is critical that this inner-monologue is developed so we can become functioning adults that can properly relate to one another. I think we can see the ways in which this has eroded, particularly those of us who have any teaching experience. The need to self-gratify, I think the logic goes, comes first without these fundamentals that teach us from early on how to properly gauge a situation and make internal choices about our own behavior.
There is a controversial new movement in early childhood education that suggests that pre-schools stop teaching little kids their ABCs and numbers, but instead encourage children to engage in rigorous, protracted episodes of “pretend.” Think about it- when you play pretend, you have to operate by a set of rules that require higher order of thinking than simply rote memorization. A child has to “know” the rules regulating conduct in a certain albeit “pretend” situation. But the educators and researchers who are trying out this new mode of learning for small children argue that these skills will better prepare preschool children for school down the road than a rigidly-structured environment.
It has to be obvious that I’m supposed to be doing something else because I’m actually writing about something other than Katie and Zuzu’s daily activities. But the point of all this is: maybe I’m a lazy mom. Maybe we’re both lazy parents. But I don’t always want to be on Katie to do something. It’s wonderful letting Katie play on her own (and wonderful that I don’t always have to “engage” or plan her day) because she is getting really, really good at playing pretend. In the car yesterday with both girls, Katie had Baby and was talking and reassuring baby while we drove around. Zuzu will start to fuss in the car and Katie will try to calm her like I calmed Katie: “It’s okay, Zuzu. I’m right here. I know, I know…” The toy bar on Zuzu’s play mat becomes either a water hose or a chicken nugget dispensary. She spends copious amounts of time putting her animals in time out, though that has lessened in recent weeks.
In short, the girl has imagination. She has played “train” with our parents time and again. And I love it. I love that she can function without me, and it’s so much fun to play with her because she is so good at it. And hey, if she’s developing some valuable life-skills at the same time, I can’t complain.