Two four-year-old girls are standing in the corner of the playground, playing house. One gets to be the mom—she’s thrilled; the other one is stuck being the baby. Wah. But then, accidentally, the “mom” scrapes her hand against the brick wall. Does she drop everything and start to cry?
Of course not! She’s the mommy. And in her desire to keep playing the game—to keep having fun, to keep pretending to be an adult—she ignores the little sting and goes back to “making dinner.” In other words, by pretending to hold it together, the little girl actually starts to hold it together.
Play is nature’s way of getting kids to do the work of growing up. More and more, child development experts are turning their attention to free play—the kind that does not involve parents or coaches or anything with batteries. The new idea is that replacing free play time with extra academics or organized activities is not doing kids any favors. “Play looks like a waste of time because it’s not ‘goal directed,’ and parents are,” says Hara Marano, author of “A Nation of Wimps.” After all, kids don’t get extra credit for pretending to be a lion. They can’t put “Played a ton of hide and seek” on a college essay. Nonetheless, play turns out to be a sort of kiddie supervitamin. It not only makes children happy, it also makes them more focused and, Marano argues, smarter. As she puts it: “Play builds brains.”
Think about a group of kids that gets together and has to come up with something to do. At the very least, this demands creativity: they have to create a game. So they do—say, “Toy Baseball.” Then they have to agree on how it’s played: they will use a plastic dinosaur as their bat. That just involved communication, and—probably—compromise (if one kid wanted to use a Barbie).
Now think about a boy who strikes out and wails, “One more pitch!”
“No!” yell the other kids. “It’s not your turn anymore!” And with that, the boy has a choice: he can have a tantrum and run off, or he can suck it up. Usually a kid wants to play more than anything, so, suck it up he does, and heads to the outfield. And with that he has just learned, literally, how to play by the rules.
Play is dress rehearsal for adulthood, and, before that, for school. Think how many times a teacher has to say, “Wait your turn!” to get a kid to stop blurting out in class. At play, kids get endless practice waiting their turn. Self-control gradually becomes second nature. Schools that cut short recess think they’re adding “education time.” But play is education time.
Play is so crucial that all mammals do it. “In play,” says Peter Gray, a professor of psychology at Boston College, “young mammals practice the very skills that they must develop in order to make it into adulthood.” Young predators practice pouncing on dead leaves. It’s not “real” hunting, but it’s making them limber and quick. Meanwhile, the prey animals are practicing how to get away from the pouncers. Squirrels’ play looks like a whole lot of tag.
Why would Mother Nature program animals to frolic, even though it wastes valuable energy and puts them at danger? Wouldn’t it be safer for them to just huddle close to home all day? How come they gambol out in the open? Because play is even more important that conserving energy or hiding at home. Our kids are animals too. They need to play to grow up. “I’m the mommy. I’ll ignore the scrape and keep acting like the mommy.”
Staying on task. Focusing. Creating. Cooperating. Communicating. Free play fosters almost all the traits we’re dying for our kids to develop. And there’s even a perk: it’s fun!