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Just Play? Who Knew?

November 02, 2002

Just when parents finally had their children's schedules figured out for maximum success skills, along comes this new blather about unstructured play.

Up to now, it's been soccer practice Tuesday afternoons and games on Saturday mornings (remember, 80% of L.A. children can't hack the test for the President's Council on Physical Fitness). Monday is private tutoring in standardized test-taking skills. Wednesdays are for after-school piano lessons, which have been linked to better spatial reasoning (whatever that is, we're sure it will come in handy for the SATs in 10 years). Scouts on Thursdays for socialization. Meetings of the Primary School Reading to the Literate Club on Fridays (all the top universities are looking for community service these days). And Sunday school, of course (something for the spiritual side).

The latest thinking, though, is that the kids have been overscheduled. All these childhood experts are praising recess and play and the importance of letting kids just hang around, making up their own games or imagining things. It's been the subject of studies at Case Western Reserve and the University of Michigan.

This isn't just about meaningless stuff like letting kids have fun and enjoy life. No, this is important. It turns out that unstructured play, the kind that doesn't need instruction or adults to organize it or expensive equipment, is thought to develop creativity and problem-solving ability, perceptual and cognitive and social skills, every psychologically correct thing you can name. It seems that all parents ever needed for their kids to get into Harvard was to give them an empty packing box as a toy. Despite all their effort, once again the clueless parents have been depriving their children of an important developmental tool. There's just no winning.

Or is there? Those Saturday afternoons are still free, and it can't be long before some entrepreneur takes advantage of that slot to offer Unstructured Play Class at the community center at $49 for the series, $13 per drop-in. The advanced class in Guided Imagination would cost a little more.

The Back to Basics children's toy catalog is bound to come out with its Vintage-Style Brown Cardboard Box to foster unstructured play skills, with the large size selling for just under $100.

Then again, we could all just wait for new studies to say that letting kids watch hours of TV with a remote control in hand fosters quick-reaction skills and small-motor development.

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