Doc­tors shouldn’t need to pre­scribe play.

Chil­dren’s ac­tivites don’t have to be di­rected and pur­pose­ful, says nov­el­ist Kather­ine Marsh

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @marshkather­ine Kather­ine Marsh is a chil­dren’s au­thor. Her most re­cent novel is “Nowhere Boy.”

Last month, I picked up my chil­dren from their first day back in Amer­i­can ele­men­tary school af­ter three years at a French school in Bel­gium. They both looked glum. “Did you make any friends?” I asked hope­fully. “What’s the point?” my 7-year-old daugh­ter said. “Re­cess is too short.”

In Brus­sels, they had 50 min­utes of re­cess plus a 20-minute mid-morn­ing break. In Wash­ing­ton, they have 30 min­utes of re­cess to­tal. The school dis­trict here guar­an­tees just 20 min­utes, and some Amer­i­can schools of­fer only 15 min­utes, which is the amount of time it takes most chil­dren just to get out the door. In Bel­gium, re­gard­less of the weather, re­cess was al­ways out­doors. In the Dis­trict, if it’s too hot, too cold or too rainy, the chil­dren have in­door re­cess — which, at our school, Lafayette Ele­men­tary, is held in the class­room be­cause of a lack of avail­able gym space. Later that week, my 10-year-old son re­ported watch­ing a short film at school about how the kids of my gen­er­a­tion “didn’t have video games and had to play board games.” The point, he ex­plained, was that kids should get off screens and play to­gether (never mind the irony of teach­ing this mes­sage through a screen).

Last month, the Amer­i­can Acad­emy of Pe­di­atrics re­leased a re­port de­tail­ing the de­vel­op­men­tal im­por­tance of play and sug­gest­ing that doc­tors write “pre­scrip­tions” for it dur­ing early-child­hood check­ups. Calls for in­creased play­time have been out there be­fore — in­clud­ing in pre­vi­ous AAP re­ports and from non­profit groups like KaBoom and the U.S. Play Coali­tion — but the idea of “pre­scrib­ing play” made head­lines, show­ing up in a range of me­dia from the New York Times to Peo­ple mag­a­zine.

This is an im­por­tant cause, but af­ter I spent three years in Europe, the fact that child de­vel­op­ment ex­perts had to “pre­scribe” play to get so­ci­ety to lis­ten struck me as ridicu­lous, much like us­ing a movie to pro­mote screen­free time. To jus­tify chil­dren’s nat­u­ral be­hav­ior to par­ents and teach­ers, it ap­par­ently has to be pre­sented as a data point. Play can’t be just what chil­dren do or what they en­joy — it has to serve a pur­pose.

There is noth­ing wrong with hav­ing a sense of pur­pose when it comes to par­ent­ing or teach­ing chil­dren, es­pe­cially in com­par­i­son with the more ne­glect­ful prac­tices of the past. But in­creas­ingly in Amer­ica, there is a sense that ev­ery mo­ment of a child’s life must be pur­pose­ful. As a chil­dren’s book writer, I spend a lot of time think­ing about the unique ways chil­dren process the world; in life, as in lit­er­a­ture, mo­ments of growth and dis­cov­ery are more likely to take place in the absence of adults, not when they mi­cro­man­age.

This tyranny of pur­pose also ex­hausts par­ents and teach­ers: In­stead of let­ting chil­dren play for an ex­tra half-hour in a state of semi-su­per­vised chaos, we su­per­vise them while they do some­thing ed­u­ca­tional. But be­cause no one has that level of con­stant en­ergy, we end up re­ly­ing on screen-based ac­tiv­i­ties billed as ed­u­ca­tional, even when our in­stincts tell us they are not. Does any­one re­ally think a 6-year-old should be play­ing math games on an iPad in­stead of run­ning around out­side?

This re­lent­less em­pha­sis on pur­pose flows from a height­ened sense of com­pe­ti­tion. At a party in Bel­gium, I met a French mom who had lived for sev­eral years in the Wash­ing­ton area. She re­called with dis­dain the Amer­i­can kinder­gart­ners who bragged about their read­ing skills but seemed at a loss about what to do on a play­date. Sev­eral years ago, I met an Ital­ian par­ent at my son’s Amer­i­can ele­men­tary school who noted a sim­i­lar sense of aca­demic pur­pose in even very young chil­dren. He of­fered a the­ory: Anx­i­ety over the next gen­er­a­tion’s eco­nomic prospects and fear of los­ing a foothold in the mer­i­toc­racy put par­ents un­der pres­sure to in­vest in their chil­dren’s skills ear­lier as a com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage.

But by al­ways driv­ing chil­dren to be pur­pose­ful, are we giv­ing them a bet­ter fu­ture or a worse one? One way to gauge this is to look at our own sense of sat­is­fac­tion as par­ents. An ocean of ink has been spilled on the topic of how stress­ful par­ent­hood has be­come, in large part be­cause we don’t al­low our­selves to stop par­ent­ing. We are be­ing driven mad by pur­pose­ful­ness, in­clud­ing guilt that we can’t be there, and be on, for our chil­dren ev­ery minute of the day. It may well be more hon­est — and more ben­e­fi­cial to chil­dren — to teach them that we all need down­time.

Play also does not need to be jus­ti­fied as ed­u­ca­tional, which is what tech mar­keters do to sell games that might teach a lit­tle math or ba­sic pro­gram­ming, but are es­sen­tially babysit­ting for teach­ers and par­ents and screen time for kids. It’s fine to play th­ese games — con­trary to the film my son saw in class, I spent plenty of my child­hood zon­ing out to Pac-Man on my Atari — but let’s stop pre­tend­ing that we’re en­rich­ing our chil­dren rather than giv­ing them and our­selves a rest. By more hon­estly treat­ing th­ese games as en­ter­tain­ment rather than ed­i­fi­ca­tion, we’re also teach­ing kids to be savvier con­sumers.

No one wants his or her child to be­come a pur­pose­less adult. But part of the joy of child­hood is do­ing things be­cause they an­chor you to the mo­ment, not be­cause they will reap fu­ture ben­e­fits or re­wards. There is a sense of mind­ful­ness chil­dren feel when they play that so many of us long for as adults. This is why the AAP re­port is so im­por­tant — and why we need to im­ple­ment its phi­los­o­phy by trust­ing our­selves as par­ents and teach­ers, not by fol­low­ing doc­tor’s or­ders. True play is free­dom from pur­pose, and no doc­tor can pre­scribe that.

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