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Many parents don’t realize that imaginative free play has been squeezed out of our children’s lives, and what a tremendous loss this is.
The majority of preschool programs today emphasize early learning, computer literacy, or using the materials in just one way rather than being play-centered. Some public elementary schools provide no recess or physical education time at all. The highly structured time a child spends in preschool, daycare, school, or aftercare is usually supplemented by a daily dose of enrichment classes and adult-led sports. These activities are sandwiched in between the three to four hours a day the average child spends watching television, movies, or playing with video games. The old refrain from my childhood, “What’ll I do?” is rarely heard today as children have almost no time in which they are not being instructed or entertained.
Neighborhood play has all but disappeared along with our neighborhoods. Many parents fearfully keep their children indoors or under constant supervision, and children frequently must be driven to friends’ houses. Spontaneous activities such as bike riding, outdoor skating, or ball games have for the most part been replaced by soccer, hockey, or other leagues which often place tremendous pressure on the child to compete or perform.
All children need “off time” in which they can be the initiators of their own activity, whether that involves making something, reading, writing, or just daydreaming. It is important for the development of the will, for the development of the ability to take initiative, that children have unstructured time in environments which encourage creative activity.
For the young child, imaginative free play is especially important because it nurtures the kind of creativity which will be transformed into creative thinking. The young child’s ability to pretend that a basket of pinecones is baby chicks one moment and apples the next reflects the child’s fluid consciousness and is excellent preparation for reading, where written symbols represent something else. When young children are using their imaginations in play, their brains are working and developing in a much healthier way than when they are being made to sit and do pages from workbooks. The saying “play is the work of childhood” reflects the importance which free play holds in the healthy development of the child.