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The freedom of play

image of children at play

For years, debates have raged whether children are overscheduled with lives filled with sports, lessons and involvement. Book titles screaming The Stressed-Out Child and The Over-Scheduling Myth certainly do not help clarify the debate.

No matter how many activities a child has, Associate Professor Gregory Braswell advises parents to make room for play.

“There has been a lot of talk about how over-scheduled kids are,” said Braswell, who has conducted studies of children and parents interacting through play since his arrival at Illinois State in 2002. He points out that much of the debated research isolates its scope to middle-class children in the United States. “So we can’t say what will or won’t work for all children. But we do know this – playing is good.”

Play is more than simply relaxation or a stress-reliever for children – it is the way they learn, noted Braswell. “Through play children learn to problem-solve, to collaborate and employ self-control. It improves the skills we value as a society,” he said. “Physical play, board games, creative and imaginative play, structured play, interactive time with others – children need them all if they are going to master different skills.”

Creative play holds a special place for Braswell, who has spent years in studies with families playing together at the Children’s Discovery Museum in Uptown Normal. “When children pretend, they are taking on roles they might adopt in life. But more than that, they are seeing how to connect with others. Free play with other children offers a key to social development.”

Though parents might want to be involved in every aspect of their children’s lives, giving children the freedom to play on their own sharpens skills as well. “Each child needs that time to imagine on their own, or even with an imaginary friend. It gives them time to process the world in a way they can understand,” said Braswell. “Of course, guided play is different for a 2-year-old than a 10-year-old, and so the amount of parent interaction will be different as well.”

As a child gets older, the concept of interactive play evolves. “Many parents vilify video games, but if they are played in moderation and on an age-appropriate level, then they can also offer lessons on playing with siblings and friends. I would argue they are more interactive than just sitting and watching TV,” he said, before adding, “Though in my house, if the kids play video games together too long, someone often ends up in tears.”

Braswell said he does not knock children being involved in after-school lessons and extracurricular activities. “Those are certainly vital for social, emotional and intellectual development,” he said. “But like the saying goes, ‘all things in moderation.’ We have to be aware of over-structuring our children, or we will be filtering out opportunities for them to grow. If children do not play, they miss out on so much.”