Want to Squash Bullying? C'mon, Let Kids Play
It's through play that we learn common sense and the kind of relationship skills that are key to success.
As the founder of a national nonprofit focused on play, I’m sometimes asked to offer parenting advice. Partly out of a superstitious fear that this will compel my otherwise lovable children to engage in suddenly reckless behavior, I generally decline. The other reason is that my parenting style tends towards a blend of things my own parents did and lessons learned from Barbara Woodhouse, the iconic, quintessentially 1980s dog trainer who wrote No Bad Dogs.
All that being said, I am not above offering general human advice, and I generally have just one suggestion, no matter the situation: less sugar, more sleep, play, and water. I'm not a doctor, so my insights around less sugar, more sleep, and water are really just based on personal experience. When it comes to prescribing play, however, I do have some authority. What we've seen at Playworks is that when kids get to play regularly in an environment where people are paying attention to climate and how it feels to be a participant, play can be an extraordinary springboard for social, emotional, cognitive, and physical well-being.
People sometimes push back on the idea that we need to be "paying attention" to the climate in which kids play, insisting that we are meddling too much and imposing too much structure. I think this is a false choice. When I was growing up, there was a real culture of play in which the older children taught the younger kids the rules to games, and maybe more importantly, the rules for navigating the group.
Seen The Sandlot? We may have lacked "The Beast" and a few of Hollywood's more pronounced touches, but a lot of kids growing up at the time can remember their neighborhood's Benny. As a result, we came to school with a pretty solid handle on how to get games going, how to resolve conflicts when they arose, and how to make sure that everyone was having enough fun to keep the games going.
But times have changed and that culture of play has largely eroded. Kids come to school without having had the exposure to the informal education that used to take place after school, on weekends, and throughout the summer. And so, while recess can be a time punctuated by conflict, we have found that paying attention to recess can mean a decrease in bullying, and an increase in physical activity, learning, and kids' sense of safety at school.
It's through play that we learn common sense and the kind of relationship skills that are key to success. And it has the added benefit of taking place in an environment that can be relatively low-stakes, ensuring that making mistakes and failing can be experienced in a way that promotes learning while enabling us to authentically connect with other people. All of which makes it a good answer when folks are looking for general advice.
Finally, play feels good and makes us happy. In the end, that's really what it's all about. Kids are intrinsically motivated to play. While I sometimes hear grown-ups fret about the challenges of getting kids to exercise the recommended 60 minutes a day, I have never heard anyone suggest that it was hard to get kids to play for 60 minutes. Rarely does such a virtuous activity come in such an enjoyable form.
Too often, we look at play as the reward for doing real work: one that we take away as punishment, or postpone indefinitely, awaiting that mythical moment when we suddenly have time to enjoy ourselves. Whether we're parenting a child, leading a team, or simply trying to take better care of ourselves, we would all do well to prescribe ourselves and those we care about more time to play.