The national trend of eliminating play-based learning, unstructured play and frequent physical activity for youth at all grade levels in public schools defies all of the research on learning theory, child development and the study of childhood in indigenous cultures.
As someone who has worked with children of all ages for over 18 years in the roles of counselor, social worker, educator, child care provider and mentor, I am intimately aware of the negative effects on children and adolescents who are confined to chairs and forced to labor over paperwork for 6-9 hours per day. Epidemic numbers of American school children are presenting with profound distress signals in reaction to the developmentally inappropriate environments of public schools. These distress signals, including hyperactivity, distraction, aggression, poor school performance and school refusal are mislabeled as “ADHD”, learning “disabilities” or mental “illness” in such children and the knee-jerk reaction has been to chemically control these children with powerful, dangerous psychiatric drugs.
In direct contrast, children in indigenous tribal cultures traditionally spent the majority of their day moving, engaging at all ages in intense play and physical activity. These children were not displaying symptoms of learning disabilities, brain disorders and mental illness because they were living in congruence with their nature, which is to move and play.
Although the research is clear that the very means by which children learn is through play and that physical activity is necessary for children, schools continue to treat play as a waste of time and treat children as if they are androids. Between school and homework, schools expect children to spend upwards of nine hours overriding their basic biophysiological nature in order to fulfill unrealistic adult expectations that are irrelevant to a child’s life. The detriments of this to children’s physical, emotional, intellectual, social and creative development are lifelong and should be of grave concern to our society.
American children are playing less and are ceasing dramatic play at younger and younger ages. Newsweek magazine recently reported that American children’s creativity has been steadily declining since the trend of standardized education became the norm in the early 90’s.
A 2001 study at the Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning found that lack of creative, unstructured play is resulting in executive function delays in children.
Despite the declining performance of boys in public schools, author William Pollock’s recommendation that boys biologically need up to five recesses per day has been largely ignored. Since the 1990’s, there has been a 700% increase in prescription of stimulant drugs to children, mostly boys- exactly at the same time that homework became the norm for elementary school children, recess and play were being cut and standardized testing was becoming federally mandated.
The obesity and “ADHD” epidemics alone should be enough evidence that keeping children virtually sedentary for five days per week has deleterious effects on the body and brain. I am convinced that children’s exhaustion from school and homework leads them to fall easily into the trap of “zoning out” in front of TV and video games. Its as if too many children have no energy or motivation for play and innate learning once they have been sedentary and forced to do busywork all day.
On the contrary, anyone who spends time with homeschooled youth soon discovers that the freedom they have to play hard and passionately and learn by doing gives them a creative and intellectual edge. Not only do homeschooled youth play dramatically well into their late teens (as opposed to standing in herds “hanging out”), these children love learning because play and learning are rightly viewed as synonymous. When children can follow their own innate interests, passions and curiosities, their intellectual and creative development can be exceptional.
It is common for me to hear public school teachers refer to physical activity as “movement breaks”. It seems customary in public schools to regiment any and all aspects of childhood and to refer to children’s basic needs in such mechanical terms. For the sake of our children, rather than view energetic, unstructured play as an expendable waste of time, it needs to be restored to the oft quoted honor it once held, as the work of children.