Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Learning to Play or Build a Resume?

As our juniors begin thinking about the college application process, I am reminded once again of the pressure they feel to enhance their resumes with long lists of volunteer work, awards, recognitions, honors, clubs, athletic and artistic accomplishments, and demonstrations of leadership. All of this is in addition to the academic expectations of a high grade point average, outstanding SAT scores, mastery of a foreign language, and multiple AP and advanced classes.

It makes me wonder when our students have time to play, spend time with their families, reflect, and get to know themselves. A recent article by Peg L. Smith, CEO, American Camp Association pointed out the importance of play in the lives of young people and how its loss can actually work against the presumed gains of an enhanced college resume.
She quotes Stuart Brown, the author of Play: How it shapes the Brain, who writes, “There is a great deal of evidence that the road to mastery of any subject is guided by play.”
I frequently hear parents lamenting the fact that they are constantly running their children from one organized activity to the next after school and on weekends, leaving no time for their children to be creative or to explore on their own. They then frequently comment that in their youth they would take off on their bikes on Saturday morning and return in the late afternoon after a day of play and exploration with friends. Parents cite the many images of violence and abduction as the reason that they tend to micromanage their children, but this tendency may be slowing down their children’s natural development.

Smith reports that evidence suggests unstructured play has been on the decline since 1955 along with a parallel decrease in children’s access to the outdoors. She states that the average radius of play is only 500 square feet and that outside play has decreased by 50% according to the Children and Nature Network.

Brain research has repeatedly discovered the brain thrives and develops its greatest potential when it has been allowed to create multiple techniques to acquire and process information. It is critically important that it be stimulated through experimenting, engaging with their friends, solving problems, and through opportunities for movement and exploration. Smith challenges us to ask if we are exchanging opportunities for the brain to develop “how” to learn with “what” to learn. She avows, “This is a misguided notion. One’s ability to discover meaning is always more valuable than information alone.”

We may discover that helping our children to have more opportunities to play and explore will serve their long-term success more than having them engage in the organized activities that now dominate their college resumes.

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