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Want well-adjusted kids? Send them out to play

It’s summertime and our kids are free – liberated from rigid schedules, confining classrooms and standardized testing. Except they’re not.

It’s summertime and our kids are free – liberated from rigid schedules, confining classrooms and standardized testing.

Lynn Pinoniemi

Except they’re not.

We, their harried and well-intentioned parents – at least, those of us with the means – have scheduled and spread-sheeted their entire summer through Labor Day.

Bent on filling their free time and keeping idle hands busy, we’ve signed up our kids for endless activities – from coding camp to Spanish immersion classes. They’re so bombarded with planned activities that they don’t have time to think. Or, we hope, get in trouble.

A troubling pattern

But then, as their well-ordered days trudge by, we begin to see a troubling pattern. Whenever our kids do have a sliver of unscheduled time – if they’re not mesmerized by a monitor or screen – they don’t know what to do with themselves.

In fact, studies show that children’s play time has fallen off by 25 percent over the past few decades. Talk about lost childhoods.

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Maybe we aren’t doing enough to encourage free play. That’s a problem parents in my generation didn’t have.

Today, even school recess time – especially during the school day – is dispensed like a controlled substance.

While Finnish schoolchildren average 75 minutes of recess time and Japanese students take 10- to 15-minute breaks each hour, American kids eke out a meager 27 minutes of recess time, on average.

Recently, in Minneapolis Public Schools, parents, school board members and play proponents petitioned for 30 minutes of “unstructured, safe, supervised recess time” for all Minneapolis kindergarteners through eighth-graders.

Life’s dress rehearsal

Watch your kids on the playground soon. You’ll witness their life’s dress rehearsal. You’ll see the next generation’s entrepreneurs, aspiring artists and future athletes – playing for real. They’re negotiating turns on the slide. Assigning dramatic roles. Cooperating to balance on the tire swing. And mastering new motor skills.

Try to remember how great it felt to play when you were a kid. Then clear your calendar, cancel some activities and give in to your kids’ own petitions for more playtime.

And if you need more proof of the power of play, consider this. A raft of studies on the value of pretend play (what the experts call “socio-dramatic play”), show it’s closely tied to the development of language and a variety of social competence skills.

Funny thing, too. Those social skills are the exact qualities that the world needs more of now: empathy, creativity and self-regulation.

So if you want to set your kids up for success as adults – and help them enjoy life fully – tell them to go play. For a better tomorrow, we play today. 

Lynn Pinoniemi works as an executive team member at Landscape Structures, based in Delano.

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