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Change in Play Leading to Children Unable to Self-Regulate?

By March 8, 2008 - 3:55pm
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There has been much (negative) discussion on children being "over scheduled", directed towards "structured play" and given too many toys that have a "pre-determined purpose".

These are compared to the "good ol' days" where children did not have "schedules" (baseball games spontaneously erupted from a bat, ball, and enough neighborhood kids), were not directed towards any play, really, so they had to make up their own play ("imaginative play"), and were not given toys such as a Leap Frog or baby "ball popper" game (they had to make up a game like tag, freeze or build a fort).

Some of the research says that the more free-for-all, creative, imaginative play actually helps kids learn self-regulation, which is important in helping them control their emotions, resist impulses and exert self-control and discipline.

The structured, scheduled classes, teams, lessons...even the toys with only one, pre-determined purpose...may lessen the child's ability to self-regulate, because there is always an adult to regulate them. Even the imaginative play isn't so imaginative, as the example given: kids used to find a stick in the backyard, and play swords. Now, kids are given a Star Wars light saber and re-enact scenes from the movie.

There are many reasons for these changes, as we could all site that the times have changed, unfortunately, with safety issues: we don't let our kids wonder around the neighborhood looking for a "pick-up game" of basketball. The structured time is to help our kids achieve certain skills, and also allow us time to cook meals!

Of course, there is always a good balance that is ideal to achieve: between structured play and imaginative play; between over-scheduled and under-scheduled. What has been your experience with your kids, related to this topic, and have you seen any differences in their ability to "self-regulate" compared to other children?

You can read more on this topic at NPR:

Add a Comment3 Comments

My two nephews are directly opposite in their interests - one all arts and science, the other a natural athlete. While the cerebral one enjoys ice skating now, it took a lot of coaxing by his crazy Auntie Al (me) to get him on the ice and feeling confident enough to let go of the edge of the rink wall. He'd rather mimic his architect father and build things than get physical. The other, however, by age 2, exhibited an instinctive knowledge of what sports equipment went together and would assemble baseball or cycling gear in the middle of the toy store. He recently participated in a cycling event (he'll be 4 this week) and told his mom he was going to win (and he did).

My boys are anomalies, I guess. They're both athletic and artistic. Perhaps they get that from me, because, although I'm not particularly talented athletically, I am a distance runner, and I'm a professional in a field that demands both artistic talent and technical skill. My daughter is a lot like her dad and spends most of her free time on her computer.

Whether or not I, as a parent, adhered to a structure of my children's making, I can't really say for certain. There were certain things I thought would be good for them to pursue, which they did, and decisions I allowed them to make for themselves. I think the most important thing a parent can do is express interest in what the child demonstrates interest in and try to support pursuit of that interest, if possible (we're assuming it's a healthy interest). If the kid wants to try karate, so be it. The kid might decide he doesn't like feeling like a punching bag and drop it for a gentler interest.

But, I don't think there's anything disciplined about imagination, only disciplined execution. Sometimes, discipline "kills" imagination. JMHO

March 10, 2008 - 5:23pm

Although not a parent myself, it has been my experience that kids tend to 'regulate' their own scheduled time and play time based on their interests.

For example, I have a nephew who loves taking swimming classes during the summer (huge here in Arizona) but would have nothing to do with the karate classes his parents enrolled him in.

When I hand a niece or nephew a toy or so-called educational toy, they use it for its 'intended' purpose for about five minutes before their little imaginations take over. I have a nephew who is a fan of Zoobs and he is always more inclined to build a whacked out building over than the mountain climber in the instructions.

And despite one nephew's Batman or Spiderman costume, I have never played the Joker or Catwoman during playtime. Instead, I've been cast in the roles of Frozen Monster Girl and Walking Meatloaf -- which to my knowledge -- are characters that have never made it to the Silver Screen.

Imagination seems to be the method by which these children self regulate and exert self-control and discipline because we all must adhere to a structure of their making.

March 10, 2008 - 8:28am

Like you said - it really is all about balance.

The good old days were not always so good. People always look back with nostalgia about how simple and wonderful childhoods in the past were but that's not really true. Sure, it was safer (or at least seemed that way, but I don't personally know of any child abucted - but the way the media protrays it, there are mad men lunging at our children 24/7!) but was it better?

Both mothers and fathers now spend far more real time with their kids. Back in my day, the mom may have stayed home but the kids played in the back all day while she did housework and made jams and fussed over stuff not worth fussing over. They even ironed pillow cases! The moms didn't really sit down with their kids and do artwork or read stories or take long walks or just...talk. And dads nowadays spend enormous chunks of quality time (sorry for the buzz word!) with their kids instead of glancing over the newspaper to tell little Johnny to finish his homework.

I remember spending hours, days and weeks in my grandmother's backyard with no toys, bored out of my mind. What would I have done for a game or computer! Or an adult to hang out with me and ask me what was on my mind.

There are easier paths to danger now - the internet being a huge one.

But I think parents these days are really doing the best they can to really connect with their kids on a level that the parents of old never did.

Sure there is over-scheduling. I don't agree with it and won't jump on that bandwagon no matter how my friends tell me it's just a matter of time before my kids have a dozen activities every week. Not true - we all parent differently.

And toys tend to be labelled as educational because of modern marketing methods. Look at Baby Einstein and Baby Mozart etc. This stuff isn't going to raise your kids IQ but people fall for it nonetheless. I also think parents overdo the toys and "educational" stuff so that they can do extra work at home or just do other things.

I like old-fashioned parening in the sense that I think my kids should spend hours gazing at the clouds if they want to. It stirs the imagination, it creates peace in a hectic household and allows me to find out what goes on in their gorgeous little heads. In summer, we walk and bike daily, we sit on the deck and they splash in the splash pool and we spend an hour eating lunch and watching the rural world go by. I love it, I will cherish all these "unscheduled" spring and summer memories I have and the thought of my kids taking classes, and racing to this camp and that camp - ugh! Can't bear it! I often wave to my neighbors who are dashing off every day in summer to get their kids to all their scheduled activities and I'm thinking "slow down, people and enjoy your kids!" I truly think that many of these children would prefer an afternoon walking in our beautiful countryside with Mom, that having her drop them off to their 4th "class" of the week.

I'm not referring to working parents here. They are doing their best to spent nights and weekends with their children. My neighborhood is full of teachers so they are off in the summer. Yet the children are enrolled in camps and classes full-time in summer.

I know when my tots are older they'll want sports and music and activities and I'm fine with that, and maybe this is easy to say now, but I will also limit them so that my husband and I can actually watch our children blossom, instead of playing the stressed out chauffeur that I see other parents becoming.

March 9, 2008 - 5:13pm
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