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Serious Business: Childhood Experts Step Up Campaign For More Free-Wheeling Play Time

David Crary

Let the children play. The drive to prepare students for the academic challenges ahead, are reducing the opportunity for group fantasy play - and thus reducing children's chances to learn on their own about fairness, kindness and other social interactions.(Harvey C. Jackson, Photographer)

NEW YORK - In one classroom, a group of preschool teachers
squatted on the floor, pretending to be cave-dwelling hunter-gatherers.
Next door, another group ended a raucous musical game by placing their
tambourines and drums atop their heads.

Silly business, to be
sure, but part of an agenda of utmost seriousness: To spread the word
that America's children need more time for freewheeling play at home
and in their schools.

"We're all sad, and we're a little
worried. ... We're sad about something missing in childhood,"
psychologist and author Michael Thompson told 900 early childhood
educators from 22 states packed into an auditorium last week.

"We have to fight back," he declared. "We're going to fight for play."

his keynote speech at New York's 92nd Street Y, the teachers dispersed
into dozens of workshops, some lighthearted, some scholarly - but all
supporting the case that creative, spontaneous play is both vital and

It's not a brand-new cause - two years ago it was
endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics. But social changes and
new demands on kids' spare time confront free-play advocates with an
ever-moving target.

Among the speakers at last week's Wonderplay
conference Y was Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a Temple University psychologist
who contends that lack of play in early childhood education "could be
the next global warming."

Without ample opportunity for forms of
play that foster innovation and creative thinking, she argues,
America's children will be at a disadvantage in the global economy.

"Play equals learning," she said. "For too long we have divorced the two."

of the factors behind diminished play time have been evolving for
decades, others are more recent. Added together, they have resulted in
eight to 12 fewer hours of free play time per week for the average
American child since the 1980s, experts say.

Among the key factors, according to Thompson:

Parents' reluctance to let their kids play outside on their own, for
fear of abduction or injury, and the companion trend of scheduling
lessons, supervised sports and other structured activities that consume
a large chunk of a child's non-school hours.

- More hours per week spent by kids watching TV, playing video games, using the Internet, communicating on cell phones.


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Shortening or eliminating recess at many schools - a trend so
pronounced that the National PTA has launched a "Rescuing Recess"

- More emphasis on formal learning in preschool, more
homework for elementary school students and more pressure from parents
on young children to quickly acquire academic skills.

are more self-conscious and competitive than in the past," Thompson
said. "They're pushing their kids to excel. ... Free play loses out."

consequences are potentially dire, according to Thompson. He contends
that diminished time to play freely with other children is producing a
generation of socially inept young people and is a factor behind high
rates of youth obesity, anxiety, attention-deficit disorder and

Many families turn to organized sports as a
principal non-school activity, but Thompson noted that this option
doesn't necessary breed creativity and can lead to burnout for good
young athletes and frustration for the less skilled.

Paley, a former kindergarten teacher at the University of Chicago
Laboratory Schools and now an author and consultant, argues that the
most vital form of play for young children involves fantasy and
role-playing with their peers.

"They're inventing abstract
thinking, before the world tells them what to think," Paley said in her
speech to the conference. "It gets them thinking, 'I am intended to
have my own ideas.'"

She worried that preschools, in the drive
to prepare students for the academic challenges ahead, are reducing the
opportunity for group fantasy play - and thus reducing children's
chances to learn on their own about fairness, kindness and other social

"The theater of the young receives the least
attention from those planning the curriculum of our nation's schools,"
Paley said. "This very activity is being dismantled in our schools to
make room for early phonics. ... Preschoolers are being asked to
practice being first graders."

Fretta Reitzes, director of the
92 Street Y's youth and family center, which serves more than 6,000
children, says many of the parents she sees are struggling to find the
right balance for their kids' schedules, asking "How much is too much?"

Preschool teachers need to lead by example, Reitzes said.

"Bringing play back into the lives of children, it's not just OK," she said. "It's really good for them."

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