Spending more time outdoors, preferably in natural settings, may be the simplest, healthiest, and most economical remedy for the terrible increase in numbers of children diagnosed with social, emotional, and learning problems over the past two decades. It may also be the answer to many problems suffered by adults in our increasingly rushed, technology-focused lives. And on a global scale, there’s evidence that more people spending more time in natural spaces would contribute to solving the environmental challenges that are increasingly disrupting our lives.
Play Outside! Twelve Ways to Health, Happiness, Intelligence, and Creativity, and to Environmental Sustainability
Free play should be bumped up in priority—ahead of organized sports, lessons, and other extracurricular activities designed to assist in kids’ résumé-building. In a new book, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, Peter Gray makes the point that free play is vital to children’s healthy development.
January is a good time for taking stock, for thinking about what’s good in one’s life, and what might need some shaping. One place to look for adjustments is whether our focus is on gratitude or entitlement.
Some children find enormous pleasure in helping others, and feel gratitude for what’s good in their own lives. They discover themselves that way, and make friends at the same time. Others are robbed of these happy pleasures by feelings of entitlement, thinking it’s smart to take care of themselves and ignore the needs of others.
Recent research shows that the experience of awe can be a catalyst for becoming someone who feels gratitude rather than entitlement, and who lives that out in acting positively to others. Parents who express their own awe–whether it’s at a sunset, an act of kindness, or a mathematical equation–help their kids learn to do that, too.
February 22, 2012
Children need more unstructured playtime in their lives. They need time enough to get bored. If they’re going to learn and grow and achieve as much as they can in the long run, they need ample opportunities to develop their self-regulation, imagination, self-awareness, and other important life skills.
Over the past few decades, playtime has become more about things—toys, educational puzzles, electronic games, etc.—than about imagination and activities that children invent for themselves. It’s also become a lot more adult-directed, with an eye on academic learning and productive use of children’s time, a lot less child-directed and apparently aimless. Instead of being filled with spontaneous improvisation and discovery, children’s time is increasingly being scheduled by adults and gobbled up by electronic devices.
While many parents think that an increased focus on the productive use of their children’s time will give their kids a leg up in the competitions to get into the best preschools, schools, and—eventually—colleges and universities, there is increasing evidence that it does the opposite. By robbing kids of ample time for imagination, exploration, and collaborative invention, we are taking away essential opportunities for them to develop the skills prerequisite to real achievement and fulfillment over time.
Self-regulation skills include managing and controlling one’s feelings, moods, behaviour, and intellectual focus. Like self-regulation, collaboration skills and self-awareness are key components of emotional intelligence, which is a much better predictor of academic, career, and other kinds of success than IQ or other intellectual or academic ability scores.
Kids who spend good chunks of their time building forts, playing house, or constructing narratives of pirates, paupers, cowboys, and circus clowns are more likely to take ownership of their own learning and their own environments. Interestingly, they’re also more likely to co-operate independently in cleaning up after a free-choice period in preschool. In an interview on National Public Radio in the USA, child development expert Laura Berk reported, ‘Children who are most effective at complex make-believe play take on that [clean-up] responsibility with greater willingness, and even will assist others in doing so without teacher prompting.’ (To see the complete article, go to http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=19212514)
Although it may look like they’re wasting time or doing nothing much at all, kids involved in imaginative play may be investing their time as productively as possible for the long run. When they’re making up their own rules and their own games, they’re learning about themselves and others, exploring and finding out what they like doing, what they want to learn more about, and how to interact successfully with others. So, let’s not insist on giving kids the scripts and the props we think they need for their play, but rather, let’s allow them to find and invent their own ways of playing and learning, at least for good parts of their day.
Children do need planned stimulation and enrichment opportunities—classes, clubs, puzzles, building toys, educational activities, museums, performances, outings, etc.—but their lives shouldn’t be so jammed with these good things that there’s no time left for imagination and unstructured playtime. Somewhat counter-intuitively, too much focus on enrichment and achievement can actually impede their cognitive and emotional development. Do-nothing times can be the most productive times of all.
December 17, 2011
Another holiday season, another reason for buying presents. Or not. Another reason, maybe, to think about the kinds of gifts we’re already blessed with, and those we have to give, without buying much at all. There’s nothing new about this anti-materialistic perspective, but when I look around me, I realise it’s a timeless message, and one that bears thinking about once again this year.
Christmas is a stressful season for most of the people I know who grew up in a Christian tradition, certainly including myself. My friends and relations who come from Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, and other traditions seem to have an easier and happier feeling about this holiday season. Many of them can say—without irony or wishful thinking—that they actually ‘like’ Christmas. I find it far too loaded with memories of Christmases past—times of sadness, loss, longing, and disappointment, as well as happiness, joy, excitement, and pleasure—as well as with perceived expectations and need for preparations, so that no one will be sad or disappointed this year—to feel anything as clean and simple as ‘liking’ for it.
One of the big seasonal stressors concerns gifts. Adults worry about finding the right gift for each of the people on their list. They worry about the price of everything, and how they’re going to pay for it all. In the hustle and bustle and stress of the season, they sometimes don’t see that their children can be worried, too.
There are children whose only worries concern whether or not they’ll be getting what they want for Christmas—the right doll, toy, bicycle, building set, or something else— but a lot of children have the same worries as their parents: will they be able to find just the right thing for each of the people on their list? And if they find something right, will they be able to afford it? And if they buy only what they can reasonably afford, will they look cheap? Will others think they don’t care? And I’ve also known a surprising number of children who worry deeply about people who don’t have so much.
By thinking creatively about what we give our children, we help free them from some of these worries. By providing a model of thoughtful expression of the spirit of Christmas –love, forgiveness, and generosity of spirit—we can help them relax a bit, and maybe even enjoy the season. What are some of the possibilities?
Gifts of presence. One of the best gifts we can give our children at this time of year is the reassurance that they are the biggest gift of all. That their presence in our lives is the biggest and best present they could ever give us.
Gifts of our fully present time. We can give them discussion time, to talk about and find out what they might like to do, and then do it with them. It might be time to take a walk together, do some cooking, go to an art gallery or zoo or museum or movie or bookstore together. Time to take a trip together, whether it’s to see the Christmas displays in the downtown store windows, or to somewhere else you’ve both been wanting to go. And then to be fully present to them during that time – we snatch the gift out of their hands if we’re irritable or impatient, or spend some of our together-time on a phone or iDevice.
Gifts of developing gifts. My professional life has focused on developing giftedness in children – finding children’s passions, interests, and abilities, and then looking for ways their parents and teachers can support them in developing those gifts. One of the best gifts to give children at this time of year is to acknowledge what it is that makes them special and unique, even if it is only a dream. It’s even better if we can also give them something to help make their hopes and dreams become real — a computer for the wannabe writer, ballet lessons for the child who loves to dance, paints and brushes for the child who is interested in art, a chemistry set for the aspiring scientist. And when money is tight, to look for ways to provide access to these opportunities in ways that don’t break the bank or overtax the budget.
Gifts of sharing. In our family, we’ve stopped buying presents for each other, except for the smallest children. We still get together to share the season, enjoy some great food together, and be present to each other in ways that reflect the reason for the season –love, generosity of spirit, acceptance, forgiveness. Several of us also choose this time of year to give something—time, money, or something else— to a cause that helps others who aren’t doing so well. Children can derive huge pleasure in thinking about others at this time of year, and finding ways to make the world a brighter place for people who are struggling.
Gifts of doing. I remember one Christmas, one of my daughters gave me a package of tickets she had carefully printed out in her eight-year-old hand. The parcel included tickets for folding the laundry, being nice to her sister, going to bed when asked, clearing out the dishwasher, and a number of other gifts of doing, things she knew would ease my daily life. What a delightful and thoughtful gift that was, and one that kept on giving for many months.
Gifts of making. I’ve always treasured gifts that people have made for me—baking, sewing, woodworking, knitting—and I try to give handmade gifts myself, as much as time and my creative imagination allow.
It may be inevitable that Christmas is bittersweet for those of us who come from a Christian tradition– that the joy, the laughter, the food, the music, the expectations, the happy holiday gatherings—will always be shadowed by thoughts of absent friends and family, awareness of people who are having a hard time of life, and memories of sad and disappointing Christmases past. One burden we can let go of, though, and relieve our children of, is the need to spend a lot of money on gifts at this time of year.