When do we stop learning through play?

The New York Times has a story about Germany’s outdoor preschools. The article cites research I’ve talked about here, like the book Last Child in the Woods. The article also features a Ph.D. dissertation from 2003 by Peter Häfner at Heidelberg University that shows that graduates of German forest kindergartens had a “clear advantage” over the graduates of regular kindergartens, performing better in cognitive and physical ability, as well as in creativity and social development. (I assume he has a book deal by now.)

Would my kids be good to feature in his book? They lived on a farm when they were younger. (This is the first time I’ve written that in past tense. It’s a little hard.)

Clearly that’s a great time to live on a farm. I never worried about playing outside or connecting to the seasons. I just worried if they fed the goats and gathered the eggs. They also spent tons of time on their computers. And it turns out that most research about kids and screens (there is a lot and it’s all shoddy) says that the only thing screens do that is bad for kids is correlate to not going outside.

So the research about education says kids should be outside, and the research about screen time says kids should be outside. Okay. So putting little kids in classrooms is stupid. They should either be outside or they should be glued to a screen. Nowhere does research say little kids should sit in chairs and learn math and reading.

But what about older kids? How old are kids when the research about playing outside doesn’t apply? I remember when we took a trip to Seattle, it was so easy to put the kids on a jungle gym. Now they’d scoff. Now the kids are older and we live in a city and they go outside to walk the dog or walk to friends and tutors, but the only play they’re doing is inside. So sometimes I think that I should give the kids vitamin D because they’re not outside enough.

Adult play helps people keep their brains from deteriorating: Scrabble, Sudoku, Solitaire – anything you do just because it’s fun is a way to keep yourself healthy as an adult. Stuart Brown, from the National Institute of Play, says “What you begin to see when there’s major play deprivation in an otherwise competent adult is that they’re not much fun to be around,” he says. “You begin to see that the perseverance and joy in work is lessened and that life is much more laborious.”

So being completely focused on goals and not having any fun makes life not fun.

That’s a hard argument to sell to someone like me, who thinks meeting goals is fun. But I’m trying to stay open-minded, and I try to be silly with the boys, even if I sometimes have to suspend reality (it’s past bedtime, we have no money, etc) in order to do it.

But I’m wondering about the outdoors. I looked pretty hard for research that shows that playing outdoors is good for adults. I found that even Harvard Medical School had a tough time finding research that says adults should be outside.

So I signed us up for the health club. I’m going to lift weights and use the rowing machine. The boys are going to play basketball. And none of it will be outside. And they’ll spend the rest of the day being sedentary, probably. But maybe sending kids outside to play when they were young is enough. Because researchers have found that deep thinkers are naturally more sedentary than other people.

22 replies
  1. GenerationXpert
    GenerationXpert says:

    I’ve tried hard to raise free range kids. I don’t live in the country, but I live in a smallish town and they’ve always had the freedom to go out and about in our neighborhood. They’d bike, climb our tree, hang with their friends on the porch, jump on the trampoline, and make movies in our driveway. Lots of stuff.

    I don’t home school, but I also am pretty hands off when it comes to their schooling. I didn’t send my oldest to preschool, because I didn’t want her to be forced to be in a classroom. And I only sent the second one, because she had some speech issues and she could get some one-on-one help for that. I also don’t make them stick with something they’re not into (i.e. one loves band, one prefers art, when they tire of something we switch).

    So even though it’s not to the level of you, my kids are pretty self-directed and they’re succeeding in school without me managing their education for them. And I’d say they still play. They still do the trampoline, video games are big but so are board games. When we go camping, they are off jumping in the river, tubing, hiking, off doing their thing.

    My point is that I think non-structured “play” is vital to their success. I think it makes them problem solvers and decision makers. I feel bad for the kids who are overscheduled.

    • Bos
      Bos says:

      I sent my daughter to an excellent play-based preschool located on a farm. When I shared information about the Waldkindergarten with the director, she got so excited about it she had a staff meeting on the topic, and screened School’s Out for the whole crew, and the teachers started spending even more time outside with the kids, some vowing not to come inside all day a couple days a week. It was awesome! It really can be done here in America, but it takes a lot of faith on the part of the directors to convince parents that this is the best thing for their kids.

      So much of what our kids needs is just for the grownups to back off, or box out some time for them just be kids.

      The violinist in my son’s chamber group is direly overscheduled, in a way that’s typical of a kid at a prestigious school these days. She swims rows competitively, and tries to keep up with the non-sporty kids in music.

      Last weekend their chamber coach told her that he knew what she really needed to do to improve her playing: “Go down to the Public Garden and watch the ducks.”
      “Should I draw them?” she asked.
      “No. Don’t do anything. Just watch them.”
      “But that will take SOOO MUUCH TIIIME!”

      There was just no way for her to process the concept of taking a break – as Whitman would say, loafing and inviting her soul.

      My son goes to a high-pressure school now. Stanford did a national school experience survey recently, and the school distinguished itself by having the most sleep deprived high schoolers in the country, with an average 5.75 hours sleep per night. Sumus Primi!!!!

      Yeah, awful school, right? But I asked my son about this and he said the biggest problem isn’t the homework the kids get, which he mostly finishes before he gets home these days, it’s that the other kids spend all damn day on their phones on social media twitting and facederping and instapinging and whatnot. So most kids never get their homework done until enough other kids go to sleep or shut up, in the middle of the night.

      My son doesn’t do any of that. He gets his work done first, using all his studies for work or practice and doing work from one class in another class. He only talks to people face to face. When he and his friends get together, they mostly go ramble in the park, climbing rocks, skateboarding, racing around getting dirty. And he sleeps about nine hours a day.

      There really is enough time to get everything done, and have fun too, but only if you learn to manage your time. That doesn’t much change. Some kids are fortunate enough to learn young that social media is the biggest time suck they face. This stuff is all free because they are the product being sold.

      • jessica
        jessica says:

        A lot of kids are bored in school, and technology is their escape from that environment, and the perhaps less than ideal environment of home. Hopefully something about that addiction changes and becomes inclusive and productive.

        • Bos
          Bos says:

          There’s a glaring problem with technology as an escape from the boring environment of school: it puts kids in an even worse environment. Gossip that never stops, and the conviction that it’s really important and you have to keep refreshing 24/7 to see if someone said something, is a terrible burden to put on kids. The social media corporations are really packaging these kids from a young age to be helpless consumers. Even a video game addiction is better than a social media addiction.

          I don’t take the problem of boredom at school lightly. I was terribly bored in school as a kid, and I wanted something better for my kids (not necessarily just better schools). I homeschooled my son for six years, until he requested to return to school, and I think more parents should homeschool their kids than do so today. If my daughter requests to homeschool, I’ll be there for her. She loves it for now, but I worry about how her mathematical precocity will play out in a school setting.

          My son and I had a conversation about boredom in school, and agreed that one of the biggest problems is that years of boredom become deep-set alienation and then a reflex of cynicism, which prevents kids from seeing the things that they might not find boring, and from accomplishing anything.

          In a competitive school, this might take the form of ignoring teachers in class and pushing homework to the bottom of the pack to do later instead of engaging immediately. This reflexive shirking, perversely, becomes a way of increasing the amount of time doing work or worrying about work. Kids who can keep themselves fresh and knock down the work as soon as it comes up end up with more free time to do the things they find exciting (you know, like singing and composing!)

    • Vincent Grady
      Vincent Grady says:

      I agree with your comment 100 per cent but I would argue that by definition play is a structrured and structuring activity. If you watch young children play or adults, one of the fascinating aspects is the that rules get made and unmade to adjust to the needs and desires of the participants,. At times this can be represent a dictatorship of sorts, with a few bossy and normative kids domineering the group, but others times it can look very democractic and empowering. I imagine by unstructured you mean non-adult structrured, but I think these are two different things. I have seen adults structure/facilitate some beautiful play environments that are sensitive to difference, the needs of all parties, and safe havens for everyone, and of course I have seen the opposite. But as for the importance of play— yes so crucial!!’

  2. Kaleen
    Kaleen says:

    I think you might like Katy Bowman’s books, try Move your DNA and Movement Matters. She is a biomechanist who talks about ways to get more movement (outside, especially) into your life and how that affects your body, mind and the world around you. Great stuff.

  3. Alyson
    Alyson says:

    Great news for us! My two spend at least half of their lives glues to computers, while in their non-computer time they’re occasionally venturing outdoors here in Romania, or travelling the world where outdoors happens a lot. I , as a very grown up. have a deep need to be outside or connected to outside. I love that outside my window is the real, proper countryside, not suburbia. I also love hiking up mountains and walking on beaches at dawn. I even love walking along the Thames, that’s outside too. I’ve stopped playing in terms of games,my play is my websites, walking, looking, exploring. And yes I love meeting goals too. The boys would far rather be on their computers than do almost anything else in the world. I’m cool with that. Like me, they can do whatever makes them happy ( And school is ridiculous, what is there to learn in a classroom? Nothing!)

  4. Joanna
    Joanna says:

    What about research into the value of spending time in nature? Is there data about how nature deprivation is unhealthy? It may not be play, exactly, but a walk in the park is certainly restorative.

  5. Caroline
    Caroline says:

    The studies that say the main detriment to screentime is not going outside . . . I wonder if, as long as they get unstructured play, their development is on target. As I watch my daughter grab my phone in the morning before school and at restaurants, etc to play, I marvel at the insatiable drive to learn through play.

  6. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    Is it that reaching goals is fun, or that the stuff you have to do to reach those goals is fun? Isn’t the stuff you have to do to reach those goals a form of figuring stuff out as you go? Is that not a form of play?

    I think a better question is, when do we ever learn anything when it’s not through play?

  7. cal
    cal says:

    The biophilia theory — that all humans, adult and child, have an innate drive to connect with nature and living things. Research on healing in the hospital setting has shown that patients who are able to look out the window in their hospital room do better than patients in rooms with no windows. Adults blood pressure goes down and other bio-markers of stress reduce when adults are in nature. I don’t think adults need to “play outside” in the same way as young children — with fantasy and imagination, or even running around playing tag. But I do believe adults and older kids will be happier healthier people the more time they spend outside. Physically from the movement and “fresh air”, but also mentally just from connecting to nature. Even if its just taking a coffee cup and the laptop out to a picnic table in a park — its different than sitting inside at a coffee shop. Having afternoon lessons on the grass under a tree instead of inside the classroom — many individual teachers of older kids and even college have experimented with that and get better outcomes (anecdotally). There’s not much downside risk to “being outside” — to play or work on goals — and a whole lot of potential upside.

  8. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    My husband recently did an interesting thing. His director took my spouse, the other senior managers, and their engineers to an Escape Room for several hours, then they went to a pub and hung out for a bit before they went back to work. It was so much “fun” that they are doing it again in a few weeks. Adult play is different than childhood play. In my experience, “childhood play” ends around age 9. I’m not dogmatic about this type of stuff. I just follow my kids lead and suggest things that I think they will enjoy doing. Also, I prefer being a leader and not a follower in this area, so I don’t look for ways to copycat other people when I know it won’t work for my kids. Like Google execs not letting their kids have any screen time… why?

  9. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    It’s important to take a close look at the definitions of fun and play and make the comparisons between those of Dr. Stuart Brown and yourself. His definition – “”Play is something done for its own sake,” he explains. “It’s voluntary, it’s pleasurable, it offers a sense of engagement, it takes you out of time. And the act itself is more important than the outcome.” He then gives the example – “So, let’s take gambling, for instance. A poker player who’s enjoying a competitive card game? That’s play, says Brown. A gambling addict whose only goal is to hit the jackpot? Not play.”
    But what about the athlete? Let’s say a volleyball player. Someone who’s serious about their game and very concerned about the outcome. Is the act (or process) more important than the outcome? Each person will have to answer that question for themself and find themself somewhere on that sliding scale between act and outcome. So what I’m saying is do the research and learn about yourself in the process. Some failure is to be expected when you’re at the edge or beyond your comfort zone. That’s what I try to do.

  10. Dana
    Dana says:

    We live on a hobby farm on five acres and I love it for the kids. They spend most of the day outside, and even when the weather is horrid, we have to go out to do chores. I like the freedom and the space to explore. It’s funny because I lived in the suburbs and had a similar childhood experience, but people don’t really accept children running the neighborhood like they did when I was a kid.

  11. Karelys Beltran
    Karelys Beltran says:

    I was raised (until 16) in an environment full of opportunities to be outside.
    In fact, being inside was just not a good thing.
    We had no AC and lived in the desert and everyone slept in the same room because our house was tiny. Nothing appealing inside.

    I was pretty sedentary but outside in the scorching heat and beige sand.

    I just wanted to think and figure things out.

  12. C
    C says:

    When you’re an adult you chunk or compartmentalize the outdoor activity as oppposed to when you’re a kid always outside playing. You pick an activity or sport, like walking, running, biking, tennis, golf, surfing, rock climbing, repelling, hiking. Walking outside to/from different places and getting out of the house to walk the dog helps with the vitamin D. Getting out of the house is the key, even if it’s just for a few minutes.

    I don’t recommend smoking, but if you ask a smoker what they enjoy about smoke breaks at work, they will tell you it gets them outside, gets them some sunlight. Even driving in your car on a sunny day gets you some vitamin D.

    I also don’t recommend tanning booths, but spending six minutes in a tanning booth once or twice a week during winter months helps offset the vitamin D deficiency that’s rampant in the northern hemisphere, which is now becoming more prevalent in the southern hemisphere and scientists can’t figure out why.

    For adults it’s incidental sunlight combined with more deliberate outside activity.

  13. marta
    marta says:

    We live in a big city centre.

    As far as I see in my own youngsters (17, 15 and 12), and from what I remember when I was a teenager (I grew up in the same city I’m raising my kids), if teenagers are given the freedom (from school, parents and society – I’m thinking law enforcement here as well) they will always choose to be outside and play.

    Things like throwing water balloons at passing tourist buses, running laps around the park after fake-stealing a mate’s wallet, fake-rough play on the grass, skating and biking, dance routines behind the trees or in back alleys, ball kicking, parkour, just meeting up at the square to chat after dinner… I mean, things teenagers have always done and will always do, if we just let them be.

    They learn a lot – physical skills, first, but also about relationships, the neighbourhood, the city. Even if they don’t know it, they are learning things that will possibly (hopefully) turn them into better partners and better citizens.

    I strongly believe that living in a city – living the city – from early on, because you are a witness and a part of the diversity the city has to offer, makes you more tolerant and open-minded.

    So, playing can mean a lot of things. In the broader sense of tinkering and experiencing with people and their circumstances, it never stops. You just have to leave your flat/house(few people live in houses in this or most continental European cities) and engage with what’s out there.

  14. Julie
    Julie says:

    Hi Penelope, I’m a FIRM believer that adults need outdoor time and movement too! It’s not research, but I assume tending to your garden was more fun/relaxing/enjoyable than sweating it out at a gym?

    I’ll send you some links on nutritious movement, why adults need outdoor time and outdoor movement too! I’m not sure I can clobber together research that proves outdoor time is necessary, simply because I’m not sure anyone has done the studies but I’ll see what I can find.

  15. Yocheved
    Yocheved says:

    Depends on the kid. My parents couldn’t keep me inside ever. My bookworm sis would never go outside. I don’t believe it’s just parents. Many of us have innate preferences.

  16. Pamela
    Pamela says:

    I think the adult need to step away from the screen and the indoors is directly linked to the growth of major outdoors-oriented cities (Portland, Seattle, Denver, Austin, Nashville) where it is more common and encouraged to simply be outside, whatever that looks like. While I wouldn’t call the skiing, mountain biking, hiking, rafting, backpacking or even gardening I do “play,” I will say that I’m happiest being outside, feeling free and unencumbered by email, to-do lists, wedding planning, etc (my adult homework, I suppose). I’m surprised there’s no direct linkage that being outside as an adult leads to a happier, healthier, smarter even-older adult. It feels obvious to me that it is indeed the case, based on physical migrations in our country and even the #optoutside movements of today. Or maybe I’m just a #basic millennial. ;)

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