A couple of weeks ago, I ran across a repost of an article from Time.com entitled, Yay for Recess: Pediatricians Say It’s as Important as Math or Reading. As a home educator who has a front row seat on child development, my first thought was, “Well, duh!”
You can read the article as I did with jaw hanging wide at some of the new research which shows that unstructured play positively affects social, emotional, and cognitive development (they need a study for this?), but for those of us who have kept our children at even moderately close range, we know this is true.
Before we all pat ourselves on the back for making one of the most important decisions of our children’s lives — to keep them out of the modern schooling system — let’s make sure we aren’t recreating the same problem we’re running from.
When I first started my home education journey, I endured ridiculous waves of guilt for not having a set schedule for waking, eating, and schooling. After all, it was my responsibility to make sure my five-year-old wasn’t missing out on anything important. I tried, I really did. But it just didn’t seem right. What did seem right? Letting my five-year-old sleep until he wasn’t tired any more. Letting him get up and eat when he was hungry. Letting him play until he was ready to do something else.
Old habits die hard and we don’t want to be viewed as slovenly or lazy parents. When interested parties would ask if we had a daily schedule we adhered to, I always felt obliged to assure them that we did (more or less). After years of fighting the guilt, I have decided that I am just not going to do it any more. And now it seems the pediatricians may be backing me up.
Some children may readily embrace sitting down and tackling a day’s work all at once. If that works for you, then by all means, stay the course. For us, this simply does not work well, and what works for one child may not work for another.
My oldest gets up first. He always starts the day with reading something. Sometimes he’s stretched out on the couch reading a sports magazine and other times he grabs a book he has been reading and jumps into my bed while I drink my coffee and answer my mail. I wake up a certain way, and so does he. Why should I, or anyone, dictate what is the right way?
My youngest sleeps late. He’s a sleeper, always has been, always will be. He wakes up by engaging in wonderful imaginative play — sometimes with his brother and sometimes with his toys. Am I really going to interrupt this to “make him do school?” Nope.
This often means that we don’t settle down to some of our more formal lessons until after lunch time, perhaps some days not at all. Yes, it’s true — go ahead and gasp.
Some days we just get off on these wonderful tangents. My oldest spent the better part of a day learning to play a song on the guitar he was determined to learn. Stopping him to remind him he needed to complete certain lessons just seemed so…wrong. What might he be learning from teaching himself something? Something that could never be replicated in a textbook.
Everyone must make the right decisions for their children and their families, but I have resolved to stop apologizing for mine. Play, in all its glorious forms, is a critical part of learning — socially, emotionally, and cognitively. Children learn naturally — the tendency for play and creativity is schooled out of us because we feel that such pursuits are frivolous, unnecessary, even unintellectual.
Even if it means we don’t move on to the next chapter, the next lesson, the next problem, I have come to value the down time and the in-between time as much as the pencil-and-paper time. All are necessary, and only you should decide how much of each your child needs and in what order and at what time each should happen.
The gist of the above-referenced article is not that unstructured play time simply has value, but that it can be as important as class time for helping a student’s performance. That is a powerful acknowledgement and one that indirectly supports homeschooling as one of the most viable and effective options for educating an individual.
Next time your child is engaged in a game, or a book, or some kind of imaginary play that is not necessarily on the day’s agenda, give yourself and him (or her) a break — let him do it until he is ready to shift to another activity naturally. This is extending a basic respect to your children of their time and choices, something we expect as adults but often fail to give in return.
Given time to explore and play without time constraint will manifest itself in other ways that you might not have expected, including improved concentration and creativity. This especially applies to very young children, but is even important to tweens and teens, too.
Next time you feel guilty about not getting on those workbooks early enough or for not doing school for enough hours in a day, take a day, and just…play.