I am as guilty as the next parent in commanding my children to "Get to work!" After seeing them just sitting around the house with different electronics in their hands for hours on end, my mind starts to catalog the various jobs they could be doing. It might be my Midwestern upbringing, or maybe my dairy farm background, or maybe even my German relatives with their ever-present "strong work ethic". When I sit down for a few minutes, I can actually hear my deceased father’s voice -- imploring, demanding, insisting: "Why are you just sitting there?"
For our parents, my sisters’ and my school vacations were a virtual gold mine. Those days off from normal routine were far from a time of sloth-like lounging in our pajamas, lazily losing ourselves completely into a new book, or having friends over. It didn’t matter how much we complained that "other people" were doing these things. The response was always the same: "We are not other people’s parents."
Our snow days-and school vacation weeks-and summer months off -- all those potential fun days -- were spent completing our parents’ to-do lists. On a farm, there is always something that is put off until later, but is still important. Depending on the season and the need, we were outside, putting hay into the mow ... sorting steers for market ... feeding baby calves ... whacking thistles ... breaking ice on water buckets ... milking cows ... bedding heifers ... updating records ... preparing animals for showing ... driving tractors ... taking snow off barn roofs ....
My children-and their friends-all have a very different idea of how vacations are to be spent, an idea that my father surely frowns down upon even now. While I think getting up at the crack of 11 a.m.comes nearly close to a mortal sin, my children (and all their friends) find that completely acceptable-desirable even! Sitting with electronics all day long, and barely interacting with someone face-to-face? That’s deemed "a good day."
Watching a group of six or seven teenagers doing this for hours on end makes me long for the days when their main focus together was manipulating Legos into masterpieces ... or destroying my linen closet’s organization by building elaborate forts in our dining rooms.
During our December meeting for Early Education Services, one of the preschool teachers pitched the idea of getting adults to play -- to show their kids the great value of actual downtime, with no structure and just time to be goofy and, well, play.
I didn’t find it too astonishing to hear that play had been officially researched and deemed "important." According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, "Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being of children and youth. Play is so important to optimal child development that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child."
Interestingly, this research study (Pediatrics Vol. 119 No 1, January 2007) found that one result of No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 has been to cut play. "Many school districts responded ... by reducing time committed to recess, the creative arts, and even physical education in an effort to focus on reading and mathematics. This change may have implications on children’s ability to store new information, because children’s cognitive capacity is enhanced by a clear-cut and significant change in activity."
But as a parent, this next part resonated with me even more: "Parents are receiving carefully marketed messages that good parents expose their children to every opportunity to excel ... much of parent-child time is spent arranging special activities or transporting children ... downtime that allows parents and children some of the most productive time for interaction is at a premium when schedules become highly packed with adult-supervised or adult-driven activities."
A week or two later, I read a magazine article which also pointed out that adults who take time to play are healthier overall. They defined play as anything that allows you to completely lose yourself, a way to forget that time is passing.
Author and psychiatrist Stuart Brown, MD, has studied more than 6,000 "play histories."
"I began thinking about the role of play in our lives while conducting a detailed study of homicidal males in Texas. What I discovered was severe play deprivation in the lives of these murderers. When I later studied highly creative and successful individuals, there was a stark contrast. Highly successful people have a rich play life.
"Most adults have ‘forgotten’ what it was like to engage in free play when they were kids. In a world of major continuous change, playful humans who can roll with the punches and innovate through their play-inspired imaginations will better survive," Brown said in an interview with Amazon.com. "Parents need to control their anxieties about maximizing every minute of their child or young adult’s time to increase their competitiveness and performance so that their college resumes will be strong. With every moment scripted by adult ambitions for them, kids cannot become naturally attuned to their innate talents."
I still hear my father’s voice booming in my head-and I am mentally reliving those moments that we were outside working together. Amazingly -- and I would never have admitted it at the time -- we also had some pretty good fun. We eight cousins laughed hard in that hay mow, and still talk about how we stacked people into corners. I actually liked the special attention from dad when we sorted the steers. When we finished taking the record snowfall off the roof, we got to slide down the pile-a huge surprise that I believe I even remember my mother joining us on the way down. (When you grow up in the flat lands of Illinois, truly, sledding is just not as much fun as it is in Vermont.)
So perhaps there is more going on when the kids sprawl across the couches for hours on end. Usually, after a while, they all get up and challenge each other in a game of "capture the flag" or some whacking/screaming/running escapade.
I guess I’ll try to stop hearing my father’s voice quite so often... at least in this case.
And maybe I’ll stop writing, and instead, I’ll jump into the playful conversation that the teenagers around me are currently having.
Jill Stahl Tyler is a parent to three children involved in the local schools-now at the high school, middle school and elementary school levels. She firmly believes in all education, and currently sits on the board for the Brattleboro School Endowment, the Brattleboro Town School Board and the Early Education Services policy council.