My tongue was a different colour every other day for more than two weeks that summer. The day I saw that jawbreaker I knew I had to get it. It was HUGE! Talk about bang for your buck or quarter as the case may be. I was so excited when Mom let me get it. All the way home in the car all you could hear was me gleefully sloppy-slurping that enormous orb. It nearly made my mother lose her mind (she not being a fan of sloppy-slurping or multi-coloured tongue and lips) but not as much as the sticky, sugary mess that was left on my bed-stand every night for two weeks. It must’ve taken every shred of her self control not to go into anti-germ clean freak mode. But she didn’t.
The childhood memory of that gargantuan jawbreaker stays with me even now. Not the taste so much, more the sheer carefree giddy way that circus-coloured ball of candy made me feel. A feeling that the world was thrilling and fascinating and needed to be tasted, seen, explored. For example, it made me want to know how one creates such a monumentally massive globe of mouth-watering perfection.
It creates the feeling that one could laze in a grassy field and pick out cloud animals on Monday, search through beach stones for coloured glass and fossils for hours at a time on Tuesday, build tree forts with mad skills on Wednesday, withhold a siege from the Jabberwock (amongst other spirited, imaginative creatures a la Lewis Carroll, J.R.R. Tolkien et al) from the safety of that same tree house Thursday, and play tag with wild abandon on Friday. Then there was the WEEKEND!
My mom was a pretty high-strung person whose worry and nervousness was never far from the surface ready to leap out at any second, so it is nothing short of a feat that she survived mine and my brother’s childhoods without snapping those tautly pulled strings. As a kid, I didn’t think any of this was a big deal, now, as a parent myself and a teacher, I see the impact of her decisions that allowed us to experience childhood in the way we did even when it made her cringe. She probably did not understand the scientific importance of the exploring, imagining, and romping about my brother and I did on a daily basis, but we do today so I am baffled at how bad we are at letting our children just PLAY.
A 1989 survey taken by the National Association of Elementary School Principals found that 96% of surveyed school systems had at least 1 recess period. Another survey a decade later found that only 70% of even kindergarten classrooms had a recess period.
In an age when we have solid research-based evidence supporting play, school districts have been reducing a child’s number one play time, namely recess. One explanation is the hyper-focus on testing seen in both the USA and Canada. For example, Olga S. Jarrett, in her paper “A Research-Based Case for Recess,” described a new school built with no adjoining playground. By way of explanation, the Atlantic Public School Superintendent, Benjamin O. Canada, stated:“We are intent on improving academic performance. You don’t do that by having kids hanging on the monkey bars.”Jarrett further explains the repercussions that various policies have on students:
No Child Left Behind’s (NCLB) focus on test scores has resulted in cutbacks in both the arts and in physical activity. According to official figures provided by school systems since the enactment of NCLB, 20% of U.S. school systems decreased recess time, averaging recess cuts of 50 minutes per week. In National Center for Educational Statistics data from 173 randomly selected school districts, 5.3% reported increases in recess while 32.3% reported decreases.
It is unfortunate that Mr. Canada was not aware of the overwhelming studies that suggest students are not only more attentive and productive but test scoresare improvedwhen students have ample play time via recess. Eric Jensen’s research on the brain bears up this assertion.
Brain research on attention suggests why breaks are needed: (a) the brain cannot maintain attention for long periods of time, requiring contrast (such as a new location or novel stimuli) to regain focus; (b) for information to be processed, down time is needed to recycle chemicals crucial for long-term memory formation; and (c) attention is cyclical, involving 90-110 minute rhythmical patterns throughout the day.
ERIC JENSEN, TEACHING WITH THE BRAIN IN MIND, 2ND EDITION
Play is so important for children that the United Nations even recognizes its necessity stating in Article 31 that every child has the right to play and rest (UN Convention on the Rights of the Child).
Play isn’t just about fun. It is about overall well-being. Play positively affects not only the physical but the cognitive, social and emotional aspects of a child’s life. We can all appreciate the freedom to run and play games and how that supports necessary physical activity. But that physical activity, in turn, supports optimal cognitive processing. A break like children have at recess supports better cognitive learning after concentrated instruction.
In research with fourth-graders, children were less fidgety and more on-task when they had recess. Also, children with hyperactivity were among those who benefited the most. These results are consistent with the findings of a meta-analysis of nearly 200 studies on the effect of exercise on cognitive functioning that suggest physical activity supports learning. Research indicates children perform better on literacy tests after they have had recess and that children raise their hands more often after recess breaks.
Furthermore, children build necessary social skills during play as it is a time that they can interact with their peers thus learning valuable communication skills: negotiation, cooperation, sharing, and problem-solving to name a few. Additionally, they practice coping skills, such as perseverance and self-control.
Educators and counselors have asserted that in organizing their own games, children learn respect for rules, self-discipline, and control of aggression; develop problem solving and planning strategies; practice leadership, resolve conflicts; and develop and understanding of playing by the rules.
The most significant aspects of play, I feel, are the emotional aspects. One of the most alarming things I have read recently is that the decline in free play may be linked with the rising cases of depression and anxiety in young people. Peter Gray, Ph.D., explores this very notion in his article fromPsychology Today, “The Decline of Play and Rise in Children’s Mental Disorders”. Gray postulates on the sharp rise in young people’s depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders evidenced in a recent study by Jean Twenge at San Diego State University. Gray says:
children’s freedom to play and explore on their own, independent of direct adult guidance and direction, has declined greatly in recent decades. Free play and exploration are, historically, the means by which children learn to solve their own problems, control their own lives, develop their own interests, and become competent in pursuit of their own interests.
Gray points out that anxiety and depression correlate with a person’s sense of control or lack thereof over their own lives.
People who believe they are in charge of their own fate are less likely to become anxious or depressed than those who believe that they are victims of circumstances beyond their control. By depriving children of opportunities to play on their own, away from direct adult supervision and control, we are depriving them of opportunities to learn how to take control of their own lives.
By far the most sobering information Gray relays is his admonishment:
We may think we are protecting them, but in fact we are diminishing their joy, diminishing their sense of self-control, preventing them from discovering and exploring the endeavors they would most love, and increasing the odds that they will suffer from anxiety, depression, and other disorders.
It makes me so sad to think that our general over-protectiveness is actually diminishing our children’s joy. Bring joy back, break out the jawbreakers, let the Jabberwocks attack, and let children sloppy-suck whilst defending their own tree forts. It’ll be the best thing we ever did.
Ginsburg, Kenneth R. “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds.” Pediatrics, American Academy of Pediatrics, 1 Jan. 2007,pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/119/1/182. Accessed 21 June 2019.