What are kids really missing? Play. Read “The Importance of Being Little” and “Vitamin N”

importance of being little

We’ve written that kids aren’t playing enough or exploring nature enough. Now, two new books talk about what our kids really need.

Erika Christakis’ “The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups” ($28, Viking) reminds us of what our preschoolers really need: for us as parents or teachers to get out of their way. No, not in a “Lord of the Flies” kind of way. What they need is to have unstructured time to be creative, to be imaginative and to play. They do not need us to tell them how to play, plan art projects so precisely that every child’s piece looks the same, or create a learning environment that is so focuses on reading, writing and arithmetic that it misses developmentally appropriate skills: how to share, how to solve basic problems, how to not be bored. We should be doing things like giving them paper and crayons and letting them go, giving them an old cardboard box and see what happens, and going into the woods and letting them explore.

Instead, we put kids in a highly structured environment in which they parrot the date and weather each morning, learn about one letter of the alphabet each week, and start learning about sentence structure without getting to enjoy the story the teacher is reading. We have become so focused on academics at an early age, that we’ve ignored what is age-appropriate and what they really need.

We allow little time to play and to play in an unstructured way. Think about growing up and building rocket ships in your backyard or playing house with the neighborhood children. Most of our kids aren’t doing that. We’re afraid to let our kids play outside with friends. We overschedule their weekends and evenings with organized play, and we forget to let them connect with nature.

Christakis reminds: “Play is the fundamental building block of human cognition, emotional health and social behavior. Play improves memory and helps children learn to do mathematical problems in their heads, take turns, regulate their impulses and speak with greater complexity.”

She suggests that our neighborhoods need to create safe zones and free-play times where kids can go around the neighborhood and be outside again, while we as adults watch them as a community, but out our windows or along the playground fence lines rather that the kind of overarching supervising that we currently do.

“The Importance of Being Little” isn’t anti-day care or anti-stay-at-home parent. It knocks both kinds of childhood experience equally. Use “The Importance of Being Little” as guide on what to look for in a preschool as well as what kind of environment to create at home.

vitamin nRichard Louv writes in “Vitamin N: 500 Ways to Enrich the Health & Happiness of Your Family & Community and Combat Nature-Deficit Disorder” ($15.95, Algonquin Books) “Is nature time absolutely necessary for a healthy, happy, fulfilling life? No. But for many children and adults, it can make all the difference.” Then he gives you 500 ideas for adding more nature into your family’s life.

Some are simple things your kids would probably naturally do if they went outside such as play in mud puddles or walk or run in a natural environment. Others take more steps such as creating your own map, echo locating like a bat, or making an owl box. It’s a good book to have when the kids scream, “I’m bored.” Have them pick an activity and do it.