One of the chief ways in which a child learns to be a good friend is through hours of interactions with friends and potential friends. In fact, aside from reading, friendship might be the primary task of the lower elementary--even more important than any math or science skills kids learn as the primary of act of being human is to be social. Our adult health and happiness is closely related to having good friends to support us.
Do You Support Your Children's Friendships?
Do you tend towards being a helicopter parent? Do you swoop in at the first sign of distress and smooth the way for your little one? If she starts to argue with someone on the playground over whose turn it is on the swing, do you come in to negotiate an equitable solution? When doling out snack at a play date, do you carefully count the number of goldfish into each bowl so that each child gets the exact same amount so that it will be exactly fair? Or worse, do you so dread the work of teaching two children to get along that avoid having the play date altogether? Historically, parents were less involved in these moment-to-moment social interactions. There was a lot of time when kids were thrown together with little adult supervision. Don’t get me wrong: Parents do play a role in teaching their kids social skills. The missing piece is that we are often so hands on about it that we never allow children to test the boundaries on their own.
The Benefits of Play to Children’s Social Development
Play is complicated! A group of kids in the same area have to decide whether there is advantage to playing together. Include more people and you have more kids on each team or more characters to enact your drama. But how do you get people to play what you want? That’s a social skill! It involves learning how to negotiate—how to take turns, how to divide assets (who gets to wear the cowboy hat?) and to share (both power and physical props). The act of coordinating a group when there is no clear leader (as is often true in same-aged groups) is a delicate dance of give and take. Leadership is not assigned; it must evolve organically. If leadership is abused, the players can always choose to walk away and play something else. Different people in the group take on fluid roles sometimes using intimidation (verbal or physical) but often bargaining or cajoling a reluctant participant.
The Importance of Unsupervised Play
Unsupervised play allows children to learn one of the most critical skills of a happy adult life—how to get one’s own needs met while at the same time fitting in with the community. At the end of the day, we are social creatures. We do not want to take a stand that will truly ostracize us from our connections. Children vary in how strong their need is to be liked. Some care much more about doing what they want to do or not playing at all (but then can find themselves not just alone but lonely, too); others sacrifice too much of themselves just to be with the group (particularly as they enter adolescence). Learning how to stand up for oneself is a skill that parents can support, but children need opportunities to practice it on their own to truly strengthen the muscle (otherwise it is just parents standing up for the child—and that does not carry over into adult life). It is over the course of many different interactions that each child finds the balance for herself between how much to give into the group and how much to stand firm. Most kids instinctively find a way to win-win solutions in order to be able be a part of the group and to get some of what one wants.
Playacting also gives children a chance to imagine who they want to be when they grow up. Playing doctor, police officer, teacher (or bull fighter!) allows them to create a vision of their future to ask what is my role in this world? Who do I want to be? When I was in the 4th grade, I was still playing with my dolls and in my mind I was Mary Poppins—the nanny who won her charges over with warmth, kindness, imagination and just the right amount of firmness. Honestly, that is who I still am at my best. Now that my kids have left the house, I babysit just for fun—carrying the image of Mary Poppins with me.
Whether it is cognitive, emotional or social, the benefits of play are significant.
The reduced time for play is showing up in our kids—in their ability to concentrate, in higher anxiety and depression statistics and in more antisocial behavior. You can address this problem both by prioritizing unstructured play time in your home and by urging schools to add in more recess time at school. Interestingly, I know a lot of working parents who feel guilty that their kids are stuck at after school care, limiting the amount of enrichment activities they can be enrolled in. Ironically, that may be a very good thing: The ratio of children to adults at after school care is such that the adults can only supervise—not micro manage the kids’ play. After school care may be the only place that children are getting a chance to make their own choices about what and with whom to play.