Whatever happened to child’s play?

Children skipping

This article first appeared in the Health News section of the Business Day of 7th March 2012.

There are two words that seem to have been dropped from the vocabulary of childhood development these days: games and play.

Obviously I am not referring to the electronic versions that consume computer and TV energy, but rather the ones that should be consuming our children’s energy: the games that are played outdoors, that get the blood pumping, the lungs working, the sweat pouring – yes, it is a good physiological adaptation that we still possess – and, importantly the kids laughing.

One can delve into various causes for loss of child’s play, but briefly I would like to explore the schooling system, in particular the school sporting system, as a potential suspect.

The whole notion of schooling is to help to give our kids a good foundation for life, and provide them with the necessary tools to contribute positively towards society and lead a happy and healthy life.

This may sound idealistic, but should nevertheless be the vision for any education system.

An important component in achieving this vision must surely lie in helping our children develop a healthy lifestyle. As such, we need to provide them with the right educational tools.

Unfortunately, in most instances a healthy lifestyle is taught exclusively through sport.

I am a huge supporter of sport participation, and fully appreciate its valuable life lessons, such as learning to be a team player, understanding the value of preparation, strategic thinking, as well as being able to win with humility and lose with dignity.

The problem is that at almost every school, physical activity lies purely within the sports domain, providing opportunity exclusively to those with either the ability or interest.

As they progress through the school system, we slowly filter out the children who don’t show ability at an early enough age, and consequently are not worth investing in. It is the equivalent of forcing a child to drop Maths or English in primary school if he or she is not in the top 11 or top 15 in the grade.

So while this approach has value in selecting top athletes, it does not create a culture of physical activity for most kids that we side-line at an early age, often before we have given their brains a chance to create communication channels with other parts of their body.

Even among those that do participate in school sport, we see a significant drop in sports participation soon after leaving school. There are very few people in their early 20s playing rugby, cricket and netball, let alone 30 – 40 year olds.

We are well aware of the health benefits of being physically active, but if our kids stop participating after school, we should be teaching them different skills, ones that are more sustainable. Unfortunately in many instances we have a system that focuses on a few sports and a few talented kids.

The emphasis tends to be on building winning teams, and the moderate achievers are largely ignored. These kids are often expected to become spectators which translates into missing out on an important aspect of their education.

Instead of focusing exclusively on sport, we should be teaching our kids to play games. There are a multitude of games that have been passed on from generation to generation, in some form or other, that need to be brought back into our children’s lives. Think of people of all ages throwing balls to each other in the park, hitting a ball with bats made from pieces of wood, flinging a flat piece of plastic through the air, jumping over a piece of rope, or chasing each other around a garden.

These are games – no score, no time limit, no referees, no rules, no coaching, no parents and importantly, no kids sitting on the side-lines. Perhaps these need to find there way back into the school system.

After all, it is just child’s play!

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