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How to clear out some toys, free up your schedule, and enrich your kids all at the same time

by Traci Schumacher on Tue, 07/16/2013 - 10:08pm

What would you think if I told you that you can enhance your child's development and self-control by taking away their toys and cutting out their scheduled activities? Well, sort of...

I read a fascinating article today about the importance of unsupervised, improvised play for kids. It is based on the research of Howard Chudacoff, a cultural historian at Brown University.

Chudacoff notes that, prior to the commercialization and mass marketing of children's toys, kids mostly played together in an improvised, self-regulated way where imagination was the limit... such as using sticks for swords and a picnic table for a pirate ship. Over time it seems the more toys, and more specialized toys, kids have acquired, the more limited their play has become. Combine this fact with the emergence of highly scheduled and monitored activities (like various lessons and league sports), designed with good intentions to protect and nurture our precious ones, and the opportunities for self-regulated, make-believe play have greatly decreased.

So what's the big deal? Well, it turns out that good old-fashioned play actually nurtures some pretty important life skills related to children's cognitive and emotional development, especially the critical skill called executive function that relates to self-regulation. This self-regulation proves to be a better predictor of academic success than other measures like IQ. Carried into adulthood, this skill enables individuals to overcome obstacles, manage emotions, and function socially. Pretty important stuff.

Sadly, as many school programs increasingly view free play such as recess to be unimportant, and the parenting culture urges us to laser-focus on achievement measured by numbers, kids have less time to develop these types of life skills.

The good news is that when kids are given more opportunity to rely on their imaginations and police themselves in their play, their self-regulation skills improve. They just need more practice with freestyle playing, outside the confines of scheduled activities and specific, limiting toys.

So, as I glance around my toy-strewn home, I relish the thought of purging some of these play-limiting toys to allow my kids more extensive imaginative play. We can work on their executive function and clear out some clutter at the same time. Truly a win-win.

Unfortunately, the article did not address the role of computer and video games on play time and development. And I sometimes wonder if my kids would be perfectly happy to see most of their toys go as long as they had the computer to play on. But that is a battle in its own right.

For my part, I can limit the screen time and free up some free time, confident that this seeming “waste” of time doing “nothing” is really doing something very good for my kids.

To read more on the subject, you can go to www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=19212514.

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