Friday, April 22, 2011

Let kids be kids!

This post was contributed by Kendra Leigh Miller, Museum volunteer.

Let them run, play and make some noise! It’s all part of being a child and learning as they grow, said Dr. William Hollinshead.

Hollinshead is also a pediatrician, Vice President of the R.I. Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and former Medical Director/Chief of Family Health policy and programs for the R.I. Department of Health.

The doctor was the guest speaker at the Museum’s annual meeting held April 11. His topic, so relevant with today’s children, was “Playing with Our Future.” It focused on the importance of children engaging in unstructured, free-thinking play. He and the Museum make a perfect pair, given this is one of the main, most important messages the Museum advocates.

“Grandma always told the kids to go out and play and it turns out, she was right,” Hollinshead said. “Unstructured play is the way children figure out how the world works. It’s not just about human children, but it’s the way all young mammals learn language, math, politics AND they do it without much intervention from parents.”
He said it’s okay to be a little less vigorous in the way adults help children, allow them not be so organized with their play and let them do what comes naturally. Children can be so over scheduled these days with soccer practice, dance lessons, music lessons, school tests and other activities along with the modern marketing of video games (he called it a phenomenon) that simple, thoughtful play gets lost in the mix.

Hollinshead said studies have shown a great deal about how the brain is molded in the very early months by the natural process of learning and experiences children have, good or bad, can certainly have an effect.

“Give them true toys,” he said. “With blocks, sticks and fabric a child can bring their imagination to life and pretend these things are lots of other things, whatever is in the mind of a child.”
Hollinshead mentioned research done by psychologist Peter Gray at Boston College, who also promotes children’s free play. According to Gray’s work, a child will walk for hours if he can. He’ll fall down a lot but he’s learning how to be two-legged. It’s a process where he’s learning about his environment.

A child may pick up an object, turn it over in his hands a few times and probably bang it on the floor or ground to see what happens. Again, he’s testing the objects in his environment.

A group of 5 year olds can and will agree on what a castle will look like if they want to build one. They’ll learn how to listen to each other, designate who will do what, and work together to accomplish the shared goal. Little do they realize these are traits they’re learning for adult life.
Among Hollinshead’s basic points: play needs to be fun and largely free of adult intervention – unless, of course, children are harming each other. Adults should ensure children have a variety of spaces for imaginative play without intrusion.

“If grown-ups meddle or interrupt the free flow of fantasy, it breaks the spell and takes the fun out of it,” Hollinshead said.

Good, productive play is often chaotic and noisy and that’s alright, too. Hollinshead recommended we should “all work for a world in which kids play more,” and keep in mind that learning isn’t just about what children gain from being in school. Some of life’s most important lessons come from play.

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