Saturday, July 22, 2006

Just Play

The best thing parents can do for their kids, a new international study says, is to show them the door.

As in: Scoot. G'wan. Play ball. Play tag or kick the can. Anything, It doesn't matter what. Just get out of the house and do something physical.

The study followed 1,732 9- and 15-year-olds from Denmark, Estonia, and Portugal. Rather than relying on the reporting of those kids and their families -- the stadard survey technique, but very flawed since people often overestate their good habits and understate their bad ones -- the researchers strapped devices to the kids' hips to monitor their activities.

"Just making sure children play outside will double the amount of physical activity they get," says Lars Bo Andersen, one of the authors of the study recently published in Lancet.

Double. What social program has that kind of success?

t's as simple as that. You don't need expensive camps and leagues. You don't need to groom your kid to be a big leaguer. You don't need legions of coaches and parents to instruct kids what to do. You need to get the kids out of the house and away from the Four Appliances of the Apocalypse -- the TV, computer, stereo, and refrigerator.

As I investigated Little League and other youth sports programs for my new book Little League, Big Dreams, I found myself troubled by the supercharged environment of kidball.

Kids start specializing in sports before they become teenagers. Their families spend thousands of dollars on private coaches, memberships in athletic clubs, travel teams, even psychological counseling. Many of the kids get very good at their sport of choice -- much better than their parents and grandparents. But they lose out on the well-rounded experiences of exploring different activities.

And as the uberkinder athletes get propelled forward in big-time tournaments, the lesser athletes tend to drop out. Experts estimate that as many as two-thirds of all kids in organized sports leagues stop playing in their early teen years.

The usual response to social problems in America is to start programs. No matter what the issue -- literacy, obesity, violence, you name it -- the impulse of repormers is to start a program or get more funding for government programs.

But programs don't always work -- or they work in ways that can worsen the problem.

That's the beauty of this study. It sends the clear message that kids just need to get out of the house, playing ball in the street or park, swimming in the pool or lake, running around in fields and woods. Don't supervise the kids. Don;t organize them. Don't tell them the rules of the games. Just get the out of the house to play.

Sometimes physical fitness is less about training than knocking around.

"We don't need to be getting kids running in the gym on treadmills," Nick Cavill, a reseacher at Oxford University, told the Associated Press. "We need to encourage kids to play."

Even short bursts of activity can have beneficial effects -- both physically and psychologically. Play should be playful, not grinding work to get better at competition. If play is fun -- if it's really play -- kids will grow up loving physical activity. And they'll be open to trying new things.

"There's a value to five and ten-minute bouts of activity, where kids will run for a little while and then stop," Cavill told AP.

That's the point that almost always gets lost in youth sports today. The adults can be so domineering -- in positive ways as well as negative -- that kids don't have much say over what they do and when. I happen to think coaches have lots to teach kids, and that organized leagues and other programs can give the kids all kinds of new ways to enjoy sports.

But kids don't get enough opportunity to say no mas in organized leagues and tournaments. Coaches set rules for all aspects of their lives -- not only how hard to practice for games, but also whether they can play other sports, take vacations with families, mess around in the pool.

Many coaches in the Little League World Series last year acknowledged pressuring their kids to play beyond their physical capacity because they were so intent on winning. Even when the kids and their parents pleaded for a break, the coaches pushed them. many went home with fractures in their shoulders and elbows from overuse. One parent told me he was taking his son out of the local competition -- the boy is now playing ball in a nearby town -- to get away from the pressures of friends and neighbors.

Most people realize that Little League tournaments -- not to mention travel teams -- can push kids too hard. The flip side is true, too. Some parents are too lax and allow their kids to slink around the house watching TV and plinking away at the computer.

In both cases the answer is simple: Just send the kids outside -- and tell them not to come back until lunchtime.


Blogger Baseball and Kids said...

Teachers, coaches, and parents seem determined to sap kids of all opportunities for play. As The New York Times shows in this July 26 article, even kindergarten has been redesigned for workworkwork. Click

July 26, 2006
On Education
In Kindergarten Playtime, a New Meaning for ‘Play’

THE word “kindergarten” means “children’s garden,” and for years has conjured up an image of children playing with blocks, splashing at water tables, dressing up in costumes or playing house. Now, with an increased emphasis on academic achievement even in the earliest grades, playtime in kindergarten is giving way to worksheets, math drills and fill-in-the-bubble standardized tests.

Nowhere are the demands greater than at Achievement First East New York Charter School in Brooklyn, which holds classes through this month. On a recent Friday morning, 20 kindergartners in uniforms of yellow shirts and blue jumpers or shorts, many yawning and rubbing their eyes, filed into the classroom of Keisha Rattray and Luis Gonzalez. Some sat in plastic chairs lined up before the teachers for phonics and grammar drills, while others sat at computer screens, listening through headphones to similar exercises.

The classroom has no blocks, dress-up corners or play kitchens. There is no time for show and tell, naps or recess. There is homework every night. For much of the day, the children are asked to sit quietly with their hands folded as their teachers drill them in phonics, punctuation and arithmetic.

“At the beginning of the year, they’re dropping like flies, falling asleep by 12 o’clock,” said Mrs. Rattray, 27. “We say, ‘Wake up, you are in big school now.’ ”

Achievement First, part of a network of charter schools, is an extreme case, but across the nation, there is less time for play even for the youngest students. And while it may seem like a good thing to teach reading, writing and arithmetic as early as possible, most early childhood experts agree that play is crucial for both social and academic development.

Constructive play helps children develop social skills while laying an important foundation for reading and math, said Dominic F. Gullo, a professor of elementary and early childhood education at Queens College.

For example, he explained, children who set up a pretend post office or a restaurant in what is called a “dramatic play area” learn how to take turns, how to speak clearly to one another, and how to make up their own stories — stories that are the foundation for writing.

Playing with blocks teaches children the basics of math as they learn that two small blocks put together have the same length as one long block.

Children who never learn to play with one another — who rely on grown-ups to resolve disputes — never learn the self-regulation and teamwork for their adulthood.

Professor Gullo said the trend toward more academics in kindergarten cut across urban, suburban and rural areas and across social classes.

“For this age, play is work,” said Carmen Fariña, who retired this month as a deputy schools chancellor for the New York City Department of Education, and who has been a teacher and principal as well.

David Cantor, the department spokesman, said the agency wanted kindergartens to have play areas and to emphasize the importance of play.

But teachers say the message that play matters does not reach the classroom.

“The play kitchen, I had to remove it to make space for the math station and the reading station,” said Patricia Wilson, a kindergarten teacher at Public School 28 in the Tremont section of the Bronx. “The dress-up area, I miss it. If a child is timid, playing in the dress-up area helps him make friends.”

Milagros Perez, a kindergarten teacher in the same school, agreed. “They do need to socialize and learn to share,” she said of the children. “They need that interaction with their peers. That has been lost. There is a lot of fighting now.”

The pressure to make kindergarten more academic can be especially intense in poorer neighborhoods. Schools there, struggling to meet the demands of the federal law known as No Child Left Behind, are ratcheting up academic expectations.

“Our real mission is closing the achievement gap,” said Diahann Billings-Burford, director of external relations for Achievement First in New York.

At Achievement First, classes run from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the school year, with gym, music and dance in the afternoon; in July, the school day goes from 7:30 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. with only academic classes.

ON the recent morning, the children in Mrs. Rattray’s and Mr. Gonzalez’s classroom read aloud from a story about a girl named Ann who brought her dog, Dan, to school. Then they filled out worksheets with questions like “Where did Dan go?” and “Who is Ann?”

One girl, slumped in her chair, twisted the hem of her skirt. A boy rocked in his chair. Another boy sucked his thumb and, with his other hand, wrote the answers on the worksheet on a clipboard.

Mrs. Rattray said that ideally, every child would have time to play with blocks and a dress-up corner. But we do not live in an ideal world, she added, and the order and structure of Achievement First is a big improvement over the chaos of many urban schools. The children are reading, a big accomplishment.

“Achievement First gives them a solid foundation,” she said.

But even as she took pride in her students’ progress, Mrs. Rattray betrayed ambivalence about the method. “If it were my own child,” she said, “I would want more time for play.”

Clara Hemphill is the director of, a project of Advocates for Children of New York.

6:28 AM  

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