“It stems back to the brain and how it develops,” said Diane Bales, who works with children through UGA Cooperative Extension and the College of Family and Consumer Sciences. “The brain needs time to consolidate and organize to really make sense of what you’ve learned. ... If children are doing something all the time, they don’t have that break. They don’t get to use what they’re learning.”
Play is especially important for elementary-aged children. “They really learn best through active exploration,” Bales said, “what we call play.”
Children who don’t get the time to play often have trouble making decisions when they get older.
In a 2007 report in Pediatrics entitled “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds,” researchers say that play contributes to the cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being of children and youth.
“Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts and to learn self-advocacy skills,” the report went on to say.
“We’re starting to see children who can’t play well,” Bales said. “They’re always wanting an adult to tell them what to do, when to do it and how to do it.”
According to Bales, children who play less are less creative as they get older and have trouble developing more complex problem-solving skills.
Cutting out play
When asked why children are overscheduled out of play, Bales said some parents and schools feel more is better when it comes to schoolwork and activities.
“A lot of adults tend to think of play as what children do when there’s not something important to do,” she said.
It also stems from a desire to keep up with others, she said. And in some cases, it’s because parents need their children to be supervised while they’re at work.
“Some of it is fear of safety,” Bales said. “And some of that is realistic, and definitely parents shouldn’t send their children out into an environment that’s not safe to play in. And some people feel like they need to do something important when they’re with their kids.”
Bales said she gets caught in that when her nephews come over, and she wants to do big things, like take them to the zoo.
“What they look most forward to is pulling out the toy drum,” she said.
Besides taking play away, parents who control their children’s lives and schedules too much can also take away their freedom to learn from their mistakes.
“It usually comes from a very kind and loving impulse by the parents,” Bales said. “But children never learn the consequences of their own actions.”
A child who forgets his lunch, she said, won’t learn to remember to grab it if he knows mom will run over to the school if he forgets it again.
“What they’re not learning there is responsibility,” Bales said. “If they have to go through the afternoon hungry, they’ll be a whole lot more likely to remember their lunch the next day.”
Helicopter parents can also become a problem if they don’t let their children go once they’ve graduated from high school. Bales cites cases where a parent will call up a college professor asking why she gave their child a bad grade.
“If you get to college and your mom and dad are still fighting your battles for you, you don’t have the skills you need for adult life.”
Giving children freedom to make mistakes doesn’t mean that parents shouldn’t advocate for their children. But if their impulse is always to rescue their children, they may never learn to solve their problems.
(Stephanie Schupska is a news editor with the University of Georgia Public Affairs Office.)