The power of PLAY (a.k.a summer break apprehension)

By Kiley Owen, PA-C

pre-teens lined up with books for reading outdoorsEach year as school ends and summer begins, I get a little anxious over the change in routine. There is some apprehension as my kids go from structured learning to lots of free time.

Why? I think it's because I don't want this time to be "wasted." I think about how much my kids have learned during the school year, and I don't want summer to undo their teachers' hard work. 

My kids are 5 and 7, so we're not talking college prep here. My daughter just finished first grade, and my son just completed a half-day pre-K program.

Kids are little sponges at this age. It's fun to watch them absorb knowledge about the world. I want to encourage their learning throughout the summer.

Beyond taking advantage of everyday "teaching moments," what is the best way to do this? 

  • Should I buy some age-appropriate activity books?
  • Should I enroll them in summer camps?
  • Should I educate myself on how to educate my kids? 

An Interesting Book

I chose the latter option and recently read Einstein Never Used Flash Cards - How Our Children REALLY Learn and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less, by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Ph.D.

I learned some good stuff, which I will share with you in this post.

The biggest lesson I learned is that I need to RELAX a little and encourage my kids to PLAY!

Here are some of my favorite take-aways from the book:

Fear has lead our culture to make unhealthy assumptions:

  1. Faster is better.
  2. Not a moment can be wasted if our children are to succeed.
  3. Parents are omnipotent, having complete power over our children's success. 
  4. Children are empty vessels who rely on us to teach them everything.

girls, maybe sisters, painting on paper and themselves

  • These days parents put a lot of focus on intellectual growth. Social development, on the other hand, is not as scripted as academic learning, so it is often seen as something that "just happens." Interestingly, EQ (emotional intelligence) can matter more than IQ. EQ includes self-control, zeal, persistence, and the ability to motivate one's self. EQ is the essence of will and character. As the book points out, "Many people with IQs of 160 are working for people with IQs of 100." Often this is because they lack EQ.
  • How can we nurture EQ? A great way is through good old-fashioned PLAY!
  • Play promotes development in a variety of domains, which the book explores in great detail. For example, play promotes problem-solving and creativity. It gives children a sense of power. It encourages better attention spans and social development. 
  • "It's just not true that the best kind of learning takes place only when a big, smart adult directs the child's every move."
  • "While organized activities have their place, we must not mistake them for play. It is play—plain and simple play—that affords many of the most essential intellectual and social advantages for children."
  • "Children sometimes just need to hang out with others, or to be by themselves. It might seem as if they are doing nothing, but there's a lot to be learned from unscheduled time on their own or with other children."
  • "By making children dependent on others to schedule and entertain them, we deprive them of the pleasures of creating their own games and the sense of mastery and independence they will need to enjoy running their own lives."
  • Some experts argue that play deprivation can even lead to depression and hostility in childhood.
  • Learning is derived naturally from curiosity and exploration. By leaving sufficient time for play, we can relax, and "leave the architecture of the brain to mother nature."
  • Albert Einstein was a great mind, not because his mind had assimilated vast quantities of information, but because he was a great thinker, and his greatness was all about process. "Love is a greater teacher than a sense of duty."
  • Rather than complimenting our kids on how smart they are (which can lead to unnecessary pressure, fear of failure, and emphasis on outcome over process), the authors recommend raving about our children's strategies, perseverance, concentration, and follow-through (which emphasize process).

young boy looking at snail in other person's outstretched hand

The authors offer 4 principles for parents to live by:

  1. The best learning is learning within reach. Present ideas just outside what the child knows. Focus on play rather than drills.
  2. Process over product creates a love of learning.
  3. Think about EQ, not just IQ.
  4. Learning in context (information that is useful in their lives) makes learning fun and unleashes natural curiosity and creativity. 

How has this book influenced my approach to summer with young kids?

My kids and I will still take regular trips to the library, and I will always encourage activities like reading books, writing stories, and creating art and "inventions" (out of random household items, which my son especially enjoys).

I will consciously praise good attitudeeffort, and creativity (not a flawless product). 

Kiley's son's homemade unicorn with found materialsWhen my kids have questions (There never seems to be a shortage of questions. :), I will strive to teach them things that are in reach (just outside what they know) and try to make concepts relatable to their world.  

Most notably, I've decided to step back, relax a bit, and let THEM take the lead.

And I am encouraging a LOT of play.

If you (like me) have felt uneasy about "wasting" precious learning time while the kids are out of school, the good news is that you can RELAX! :)  Summer is a great time to encourage a different kind of learning in our kids, through free time and play! Some unstructured time and good old-fashioned play can provide wonderful opportunities for intellectual and social development.

Kiley Owen is a physician assistant, blogger and preventive health enthusiast. This post — along with helpful links to other resources — originally appeared on her blog, makinghealthapriority.com.