By Lesley Sillaman, Tuesday, January 19, 2010, at 11:38 am.
In an unusual melding of personal and professional, my work has helped inform and educate me for the most important role of my life: my first ten months as a parent. Over the past four years, I’ve worked with the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association, a nonprofit membership association of playground equipment and surfacing manufacturers that has taken on the important mission of reminding society of the importance of play. It’s a refreshing change of pace at times—while being plugged in electronically to my BlackBerry, cell phone, Facebook and Twitter—to think about play and playgrounds.
I’ve quickly become steeped in the language of the industry. I know my recycled rubber from my engineered wood fiber. I know what the term “critical fall height” means for vertical playground equipment. And I know that a swing is the single most important piece of equipment to have on a playground. I’ve even learned about the rich history of free play throughout societies, dating to its roots in ancient Greece and Rome.
In addition, I’ve learned about the plethora of cognitive, emotional and physical skills kids learn while playing. For example, kids learn verbal skills and creativity through game playing and socialization. Kids sharpen their reasoning, critical thinking and judgment skills through group play activities and hone their construction abilities and problem-solving skills while playing. They also develop improved physical skills through play, such as flexibility, distance perception, upper trunk development and overall calorie burn. There is even evidence that free play increases brain development in kids. In short, kids learn more on the playground than many of us are aware—and play is of critical importance to a child’s healthy development, bringing him or her an array of skills to use throughout life.
I convinced myself that when I had children, I would be educated enough to know that it’s a marathon not a sprint; that my child would be given the opportunity to freely play and grow at her own pace; that raising a healthy, well-adjusted child is about freedom, play and quality time—not about being the first to walk, talk, sing, play piano or sign up for dance, soccer and Spanish lessons.
And so, it was with knowledgeable eyes (or so I thought) that I entered into parenthood last April, with the birth of my first child, Sonia. All the important things were accounted for in the first few minutes: Ten fingers? Check. Ten toes? Check. Height? Nineteen inches. Weight? Five pounds, 11 ounces, fifth percentile. Hold on—fifth percentile? What? Doesn’t that seem a little low? And out came the competitive side I wanted so hard to keep in (mixed with hormones, emotion and first-time-parent nervousness). The feelings that I was so ready to avoid in life, that my child needed to “keep up” in any way, were rearing their ugly head on day one. Before I even left the hospital, I had already done an informal poll of friends, co-workers and family about their own experiences with birth-weight percentiles. “Remember, 100 percent is not the goal,” my husband continued to say in my ear. But I couldn’t get the numbers out of my head.
Then, when I returned to work and Sonia started day care, the developmental competition began. While always gently reminding us that infant behavior varies wildly, the day-care staff provided us with wonderful updates on what Sonia was doing—laughing, clapping, sitting, crawling. I was impressed and thrilled by her progress, although I couldn’t help but continue to wonder, Are the other kids doing that? Are they doing more? Less? Is she first, or last?
It was against this nearly obsessive backdrop that I eagerly read Time’s article “The Growing Backlash Against Overparenting.” The first line struck a chord: “The insanity crept up on us slowly.” I laughed out loud and kept reading. The article contrasts parents’ good intentions with an industry gone awry: kneepads for babies, glorified leashes that keep kids close and background checks for parents who volunteer at their kids’ schools. Where did it all go so wrong? The writer, Nancy Gibbs, points to the 1990s as the critical decade (“from peace and prosperity, there arose fear and anxiety”) and says obsessing about kids is becoming the new normal.
The article’s thrust is to show a reassuring trend: a growing rebellion against overparenting. It’s a move toward cutting kids’ extracurricular activities and simplifying overscheduled lives, letting kids play freely and allowing—even encouraging—mistakes as a part of the learning process. The article ends with this heartening advice, given by D.H. Lawrence in 1918: “How to begin to educate a child. First rule: leave him alone. Second rule: leave him alone. Third rule: leave him alone. That is the whole beginning.” Although I don’t think I’ll ever quite be able to leave (her) alone, I am hopeful that I’ll learn to let go a bit, especially on the playground. For now.
To learn more about the importance of free play for kids, visit the Voice of Play.