Category: Research and Reports

Why so many kids can’t sit still in school today

This article originally appeared on The Washington Post here, and was written by Valerie Strauss.

The Centers for Disease Control tells us that in recent years there has been a jump in the percentage of young people diagnosed with Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder, commonly known as ADHD: 7.8 percent in 2003 to 9.5 percent in 2007 and to 11 percent in 2011. The reasons for the rise are multiple, and include changes in diagnostic criteria, medication treatment and more awareness of the condition. In the following post, Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist and the founder of TimberNook, a nature-based development program designed to foster creativity and independent play outdoors in New England, suggests yet another reason more children are being diagnosed with ADHD, whether or not they really have it: the amount of time kids are forced to sit while they are in school. This appeared on the TimberNook blog.

A perfect stranger pours her heart out to me over the phone. She complains that her 6-year-old son is unable to sit still in the classroom. The school wants to test him for ADHD (attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder). This sounds familiar, I think to myself. As a pediatric occupational therapist, I’ve noticed that this is a fairly common problem today.

The mother goes on to explain how her son comes home every day with a yellow smiley face. The rest of his class goes home with green smiley faces for good behavior. Every day this child is reminded that his behavior is unacceptable, simply because he can’t sit still for long periods of time.

The mother starts crying. “He is starting to say things like, ‘I hate myself’ and ‘I’m no good at anything.’” This young boy’s self-esteem is plummeting all because he needs to move more often.

Over the past decade, more and more children are being coded as having attention issues and possibly ADHD. A local elementary teacher tells me that at least eight of her twenty-two students have trouble paying attention on a good day. At the same time, children are expected to sit for longer periods of time. In fact, even kindergarteners are being asked to sit for thirty minutes during circle time at some schools.

The problem: children are constantly in an upright position these days. It is rare to find children rolling down hills, climbing trees, and spinning in circles just for fun. Merry-go-rounds and teeter-totters are a thing of the past. Recess times have shortened due to increasing educational demands, and children rarely play outdoors due to parental fears, liability issues, and the hectic schedules of modern-day society. Lets face it: Children are not nearly moving enough, and it is really starting to become a problem.

I recently observed a fifth grade classroom as a favor to a teacher. I quietly went in and took a seat towards the back of the classroom. The teacher was reading a book to the children and it was towards the end of the day. I’ve never seen anything like it. Kids were tilting back their chairs back at extreme angles, others were rocking their bodies back and forth, a few were chewing on the ends of their pencils, and one child was hitting a water bottle against her forehead in a rhythmic pattern.

This was not a special-needs classroom, but a typical classroom at a popular art-integrated charter school. My first thought was that the children might have been fidgeting because it was the end of the day and they were simply tired. Even though this may have been part of the problem, there was certainly another underlying reason.

We quickly learned after further testing, that most of the children in the classroom had poor core strength and balance. In fact, we tested a few other classrooms and found that when compared to children from the early 1980s, only one out of twelve children had normal strength and balance. Only one! Oh my goodness, I thought to myself. These children need to move!

Ironically, many children are walking around with an underdeveloped vestibular (balance) system today–due to restricted movement. In order to develop a strong balance system, children need to move their body in all directions, for hours at a time. Just like with exercising, they need to do this more than just once-a-week in order to reap the benefits. Therefore, having soccer practice once or twice a week is likely not enough movement for the child to develop a strong sensory system.

Children are going to class with bodies that are less prepared to learn than ever before. With sensory systems not quite working right, they are asked to sit and pay attention. Children naturally start fidgeting in order to get the movement their body so desperately needs and is not getting enough of to “turn their brain on.” What happens when the children start fidgeting? We ask them to sit still and pay attention; therefore, their brain goes back to “sleep.”

Fidgeting is a real problem. It is a strong indicator that children are not getting enough movement throughout the day. We need to fix the underlying issue. Recess times need to be extended and kids should be playing outside as soon as they get home from school. Twenty minutes of movement a day is not enough! They need hours of play outdoors in order to establish a healthy sensory system and to support higher-level attention and learning in the classroom.

In order for children to learn, they need to be able to pay attention. In order to pay attention, we need to let them move.

To Make Children Healthier, A Doctor Prescribes A Trip To The Park

This article originally appeared on NPR.com here, and was written by Sam Sanders.

When Dr. Robert Zarr wanted a young patient to get more exercise, he gave her an unusual prescription: Get off the bus to school earlier.

“She has to take a bus to the train, then a train to another bus, then that bus to her school,” says Zarr, a pediatrician at Unity Health Care, a clinic that serves low-income and uninsured families in Washington, D.C. So the prescription read: “Walk the remaining four blocks on the second bus on your route to school from home, every day.”

Kelssi Aguilar, his 13-year-old patient, wasn’t exactly excited about the change at first. “He told me about the four blocks and I told him it was a 40-minute walk and I was too lazy,” she said. “I was thinking, am I really doing this? I’m going to be late for school.”

Kelssi was actually 10 minutes early the first day she tried the modified route. Kelssi has kept up the walking. And Zarr says she’s moved from obese to just overweight — which is very good.

About 40 percent of Zarr’s young patients are overweight or obese, which has led the doctor to come up with ways to give them very specific recommendations for physical activity. And that has meant mapping out all of the parks in the District of Columbia — 380 parks so far.

The parks, mapped and rated based on facilities and in a searchable database by zip code, can be linked to patients’ electronic medical records. Zarr did it with help from the National Park Service and volunteers from George Washington University’s School of Public Health, park rangers and other doctors. Zarr also received some funding for the project from the National Recreation and Park Association, the National Environmental Education Foundation, and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Zarr writes park prescriptions on a special prescription pad, in English and Spanish, with the words “Rx for Outdoor Activity” on top, and a schedule slot that asks, “When and where will you play outside this week?”

But it’s not just about the parks. It’s about what the patients want, too.

“I like to listen and find out what it is my patients like to do,” Zarr says, “and then gauge the parks based on their interests, based on their schedules, based on the things they’re willing to do.”

There are other park prescriptions projects getting started across the country, but none have matched the level of detail in Zarr’s parks database.

To Get Kids Exercising, Schools Are Becoming Creative
Many children aren’t used to going to parks, notes Dr. Steven Pont, medical director for the Texas Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Childhood Obesity in Austin.

“If you didn’t grow up in a family that went camping or experienced outdoors and if you’re more from an urban environment, then going out to a park and experiencing nature might seem a little daunting,” Pont says.

A program like Zarr’s can help reduce that discomfort, Pont says. “The park prescriptions really help kids and families engage and get to those parks and say, ‘Hey, I belong here too.’ ”

The CDC would be happy with these guys, who were playing in Birmingham, Ala., in July 2013. Teenage boys say basketball is their favorite activity.
Shots – Health News
Most Teens Aren’t Active Enough, And It’s Not Always Their Fault
Of course, not every park is safe, especially in the District. The neighborhood next to one of the parks Zarr discussed with Kelssi, Kingman Island, had 30 incidents of violent crime over the past year.

“The more parks are used, the more people are there, the safer and the better they are,” Zarr says. “We want people first and foremost to be safe, and be active and be part of the solution to fixing parks that aren’t quite what they should be.”

Ultimately, Zarr says, he wants his parks database to exist in an app, on your smartphone, where doctors and patients alike can use it. And, one day he’d like to be able to track his patients’ activity in parks, to find out exactly how much good a little green space can do.

Getting Your Kids Off the iPad Is Worth the Fight

This article first appeared on yahoo.com

Any parent who knows the particular hell of child tantrums in response to a set of screen-time rules may eventually begin to wonder: Is it really worth the fight? But a new study wants to assure you that yes, it really is. So stand your ground, moms and dads. The research, published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics, found that parents who set limits can count on some seriously positive results for their kids — including improved sleep, better grades, less aggressive behavior, and lower risk of obesity. 

“Parents often feel out of control when it comes to screen time — like they’re either taking a shot in the dark or should just give up,” lead researcher Douglas Gentile, a developmental psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Iowa State, tells Yahoo Shine. “But what this study shows is that even that shot in the dark is really powerful. Parents have a much more of a profound effect on their child’s wellbeing than they realize.”

For the study, researchers analyzed the media habits of more than 1,300 Iowa and Minnesota schoolchildren already participating in an obesity-prevention program. They collected data from students, parents, teachers, and nurses on topics including screen-time limits, exposure to violent media, bedtimes, behavior, grades, and height and weights data — first at the start of the study and then again seven months later. “What we saw was this kind of ripple effect,” Gentile says, explaining that limits on screen time — specifically, watching shows or movies in any form, and playing video games — improved kids’ sleep, academics, pro-social behavior, and even body mass index. That seven months wound up being a sufficient amount of time to see differences between kids who had screen-time limits and those who did not was a happy surprise to researchers, particularly since the effects were small. 

“It was long enough for us to see the effect and also long enough for parents not to notice it,” Gentile explains, which is why moms and dads can be quick to dismiss the importance of monitoring screen time. “As parents, we don’t even see our children get taller and that’s a really noticeable effect. With media, what we’re often looking for is the absence of a problem, such as a child not gaining weight, making it even more difficult to notice,” Gentile says. But even tiny controls can make an impact, considering that children spend an average of 40-plus hours a week in front of a screen — not even counting time spent on their school computers. Also, according to a recent Common Sense Media study, 72 percent of children under 8 have used a mobile device — while 38 percent of children under 2 have used one — signaling a dramatic uptick since the group’s last such study, in 2012. 

Other recent studies have yielded similar findings regarding links between excessive screen time andobesitysleep, and aggression — but not necessarily all in one fell swoop. The new research also jibes with the recently revised guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which suggest less than two hours of passive screen time daily for all kids and teens and no screen time for kids younger than 2 (though, recently a doctor has suggested that active, rather than passive, screen time for kids under 2 might actually be beneficial).

Some tips for parents needing advice on how, exactly, to set limits, include:

Control the content. Let your child watch a DVD that you’re familiar with, for example, rather than something on TV or the computer. “That way, you’re not surprised by the content, and you know exactly how much time they’ll be watching for,” Gentile says.  

Model good behavior. “When kids are around, set an example by using media the way you want them to use it,” suggests Common Sense Media’s vice president of research, Seeta Pai. “If we’re on our phones at dinner, why will our kids listen to us when we tell them to turn theirs off?”

Set up an allowance or token economy system. Allot, say, 10 hours of screen time a week, and let your kids spend it whenever they want. Maybe they’ll use it in small increments, or maybe they’ll save up a binge for the weekend — but either way, they won’t want to waste it. “It helps them learn to manage their screen time, just like with a monetary allowance,” Gentile explains. “Plus it gives them some control and takes the fight away from the parent.”

 

Price tag for Child Obesity: $19K per kid

This article originally appeared in the USA Today

Over a lifetime, the medical costs associated with childhood obesity total about $19,000 per child compared with those for a child of normal weight, a new analysis shows.

The costs are about $12,900 per person for children of normal weight who become overweight or obese in adulthood, according to the analysis by researchers at the Duke Global Health Institute and Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School in Singapore and published online Monday in the journal Pediatrics.

The $19,000 estimate reflects direct medical costs such as doctors’ visits and medication but not indirect costs such as absenteeism and lost productivity into adulthood. The cost is “large, although perhaps not as large as some people would have guessed,” says lead author Eric Finkelstein, a health economist.

“In the case of childhood obesity, the real costs do not occur until decades later when these kids get adult health problems at a greater rate,” he says.

Obesity is a known risk factor for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers and a wide range of other diseases. About one in three adults and nearly one in five children in the United States are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The estimates highlight “the financial consequences of inaction and the potential medical savings from obesity prevention efforts that successfully reduce or delay obesity onset,” Finkelstein says.

The study notes that when multiplied by the number of all obese 10-year-olds in the U.S. today, the lifetime medical costs for this age alone reaches roughly $14 billion. That’s nearly twice the Department of Health and Human Services’ $7.8-billion budget for the Head Start program in fiscal year 2012, the analysis says.

To determine the estimates, researchers evaluated and updated existing research on lifetime costs of childhood obesity, focusing on six published studies.

The per-child estimates are valuable when looking at cost effectiveness, says John Cawley, co-director of the Institute on Health Economics, Health Behaviors and Disparities at Cornell University. He was not involved in the latest study.

If a new school-based intervention program is developed to decrease the probability of childhood obesity by a certain percentage, “you can use the numbers in the study to figure out what kind of savings that applies to the health care system,” Cawley says.

The $19,000 estimate is more than the roughly $16,930 the College Board says one year of college costs at a public four-year institution, including tuition, fees, books, room and board and other expenses.

 

Are Kids Forgetting How to Play?

This article first appeared in The Epoch Times here.

Lack of unstructured outdoor play is affecting children’s development, says expert

Play has been called “the business of childhood,” but with an increasing lack of free, unstructured time outdoors, kids are simply forgetting how to play, says an Ontario teacher consultant.

In the not-too-distant past, it was common to see kids playing outside. These days, however, it seems most children would rather stay indoors and get their entertainment from computers or other electronics.

“There’s a bit of a challenge with electronics these days,” says Sharon Seslija, a health and physical education consultant at Greater Essex County District School Board in Windsor.

“Even in my own neighbourhood, it’s like a desert out there—you just don’t see the kids outside.”

Besides spending an increased amount of time in front of various screens, Seslijia says other reasons why children aren’t getting outside as much include being over-scheduled in after-school activities, a lack of quality outdoor play space in urban areas, and parents’ fear that kids may get abducted or harmed if they play outside.

“We’re starting to see that kids don’t know how to play,” she says, noting that play—particularly unsupervised outdoor play—has an important role in children’s development.

This lack of outdoor playtime may be affecting childhood development, according to experts.

Studies show that in addition to the physical benefits of exercise, outdoor play and exposure to the natural world or “green space” has a number of cognitive, emotional, and social development benefits.

Play has been shown to improve and foster motor function, creativity, decision-making, problem-solving, social skills, control emotions, and helps develop speech in preschoolers. It also allows youngsters to try new things, test boundaries, and learn from their mistakes in a safe environment.

Only 5 percent of kids meet the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines of 60 minutes of physical activity per day, according to Active Healthy Kids Canada. In addition, 46 percent of children get less than three hours of active play per week.

“If one is not outside and moving and exercising, then of course we see rising rates of obesity in our young kids, and increases in mental health issues—anxiety, depression, all that stuff,” says Seslijia.

“Kids are not learning how to use their imaginations, and decision-making, problem-solving skills, and collaborative play are not being developed to their full extent.”

‘Everyone has to contribute’

Schools have started to notice the phenomenon and programs have been popping up to get kids outside, but the problem needs a more proactive, community-wide solution, says Seslijia.

“It’s much bigger than what the schools can do. This is one of those issues where everyone has to contribute,” she said.

“It would be great to see the police department saying, ‘Send your kids outside to play, our streets are safe. Crime statistics are down. It’s OK to go outside and play.’ It would be good for our Department of Health, our health units to promote [outdoor play]—to get that message to the parents.”

According to Active Healthy Kids Canada’s 2013 annual report card, the federal government has started to take note of the need to include active living initiatives in policy and funding.

The report card gave the government’s strategies on active living a “C-” grade for 2013, up from “D” in 2012. Government investments were also ranked “C-,” up from “F” in the last three consecutive years.

Several factors contributed to the improved grades, said the report card. These include greater commitment from provincial and territorial ministers to increase health-enhancing initiatives in their jurisdictions; improved funding for active transportation infrastructure; increased federal funding to Sport Canada and the 2015 Pan American games; and endorsements of the Canadian Sport Policy 2.0.

Active Healthy Kids Canada recommended that the government follow the lead of many other countries and develop a national action plan on physical activity promotion.

“The federal government should continue to increase the priority of physical activity across several government departments including sport, health, transportation, and environment,” the report said.

 

School ditches rules and loses bullies

Ripping up the playground rulebook is having incredible effects on children at an Auckland school.

Chaos may reign at Swanson Primary School with children climbing trees, riding skateboards and playing bullrush during playtime, but surprisingly the students don’t cause bedlam, the principal says.

The school is actually seeing a drop in bullying, serious injuries and vandalism, while concentration levels in class are increasing.

Principal Bruce McLachlan rid the school of playtime rules as part of a successful university experiment.

“We want kids to be safe and to look after them, but we end up wrapping them in cotton wool when in fact they should be able to fall over.”

Letting children test themselves on a scooter during playtime could make them more aware of the dangers when getting behind the wheel of a car in high school, he said.

“When you look at our playground it looks chaotic. From an adult’s perspective, it looks like kids might get hurt, but they don’t.”

Swanson School signed up to the study by AUT and Otago University just over two years ago, with the aim of encouraging active play.

However, the school took the experiment a step further by abandoning the rules completely, much to the horror of some teachers at the time, he said.

When the university study wrapped up at the end of last year the school and researchers were amazed by the results.

Mudslides, skateboarding, bullrush and tree climbing kept the children so occupied the school no longer needed a timeout area or as many teachers on patrol.

Instead of a playground, children used their imagination to play in a “loose parts pit” which contained junk such as wood, tyres and an old fire hose.

“The kids were motivated, busy and engaged. In my experience, the time children get into trouble is when they are not busy, motivated and engaged. It’s during that time they bully other kids, graffiti or wreck things around the school.”

Parents were happy too because their children were happy, he said.

But this wasn’t a playtime revolution, it was just a return to the days before health and safety policies came to rule.

AUT professor of public health Grant Schofield, who worked on the research project, said there are too many rules in modern playgrounds.

“The great paradox of cotton-woolling children is it’s more dangerous in the long-run.”

Society’s obsession with protecting children ignores the benefits of risk-taking, he said.

Children develop the frontal lobe of their brain when taking risks, meaning they work out consequences. “You can’t teach them that. They have to learn risk on their own terms. It doesn’t develop by watching TV, they have to get out there.”

The research project morphed into something bigger when plans to upgrade playgrounds were stopped due to over-zealous safety regulations and costly play equipment.

“There was so many ridiculous health and safety regulations and the kids thought the static structures of playgrounds were boring.”

When researchers – inspired by their own risk-taking childhoods – decided to give children the freedom to create their own play, principals shook their heads but eventually four Dunedin schools and four West Auckland schools agreed to take on the challenge, including Swanson Primary School.

It was expected the children would be more active, but researchers were amazed by all the behavioural pay-offs. The final results of the study will be collated this year.

Schofield urged other schools to embrace risk-taking. “It’s a no brainer. As far as implementation, it’s a zero-cost game in most cases. All you are doing is abandoning rules,” he said.

Source: TVNC OneNEWS
6:31AM Sunday January 26, 2014

Fit kids finish first in the classroom

This article first appeared on msutoday.msu.edu here

 See more at: http://msutoday.msu.edu/news/2012/fit-kids-finish-first-in-the-classroom/#sthash.gFgJ0dwF.dpuf

Contact(s): Andy McGlashen (Media Communications office: (517) 355-2281); Jim Pivarnik (Kinesiology office: 517-353-3520 jimpiv@msu.edu)

Fit kids aren’t only first picked for kickball. New research from Michigan State University shows middle school students in the best physical shape outscore their classmates on standardized tests and take home better report cards.

Published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, it’s the first study linking children’s fitness to both improved scores on objective tests and better grades, which rely on subjective decisions by teachers.

The study also is among the first to examine how academic performance relates to all aspects of physical fitness – including body fat, muscular strength, flexibility and endurance – according to lead researcher Dawn Coe.

“We looked at the full range of what’s called health-related fitness,” said Coe, who conducted the research as a doctoral student in MSU’s kinesiology department and is now an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “Kids aren’t really fit if they’re doing well in just one of those categories.”

Coe and colleagues gathered their data from 312 students in sixth through eighth grade at a West Michigan school. They gauged the kids’ fitness with an established program of push-ups, shuttle runs and other exercises.

Then they compared those scores to students’ letter grades throughout the school year in four core classes and their performance on a standardized test.

The results showed the fittest children got the highest test scores and the best grades, regardless of gender or whether they’d yet gone through puberty.

The findings suggest schools that cut physical education and recess to focus on core subjects may undermine students’ success on the standardized tests that affect school funding and prestige, said co-author James Pivarnik, who advised Coe on the project.

“Look, your fitter kids are the ones who will do better on tests, so that would argue against cutting physical activity from the school day,” said Pivarnik, an MSU professor of kinesiology. “That’s the exciting thing, is if we can get people to listen and have some impact on public policy.”

Making fitness a bigger part of children’s lives also sets them up for future success, Pivarnik added.

“Fit kids are more likely to be fit adults,” he said. “And now we see that fitness is tied to academic achievement. So hopefully the fitness and the success will both continue together.”

 

The play deficit

Children today are cossetted and pressured in equal measure. Without the freedom to play they will never grow up.

by Peter Gray

When I was a child in the 1950s, my friends and I had two educations. We had school (which was not the big deal it is today), and we also had what I call a hunter-gather education. We played in mixed-age neighbourhood groups almost every day after school, often until dark. We played all weekend and all summer long. We had time to explore in all sorts of ways, and also time to become bored and figure out how to overcome boredom, time to get into trouble and find our way out of it, time to daydream, time to immerse ourselves in hobbies, and time to read comics and whatever else we wanted to read rather than the books assigned to us. What I learnt in my hunter-gatherer education has been far more valuable to my adult life than what I learnt in school, and I think others in my age group would say the same if they took time to think about it.

For more than 50 years now, we in the United States have been gradually reducing children’s opportunities to play, and the same is true in many other countries. In his book Children at Play: An American History (2007), Howard Chudacoff refers to the first half of the 20th century as the ‘golden age’ of children’s free play. By about 1900, the need for child labour had declined, so children had a good deal of free time. But then, beginning around 1960 or a little before, adults began chipping away at that freedom by increasing the time that children had to spend at schoolwork and, even more significantly, by reducing children’s freedom to play on their own, even when they were out of school and not doing homework. Adult-directed sports for children began to replace ‘pickup’ games; adult-directed classes out of school began to replace hobbies; and parents’ fears led them, ever more, to forbid children from going out to play with other kids, away from home, unsupervised. There are lots of reasons for these changes but the effect, over the decades, has been a continuous and ultimately dramatic decline in children’s opportunities to play and explore in their own chosen ways.

Over the same decades that children’s play has been declining, childhood mental disorders have been increasing. It’s not just that we’re seeing disorders that we overlooked before. Clinical questionnaires aimed at assessing anxiety and depression, for example, have been given in unchanged form to normative groups of schoolchildren in the US ever since the 1950s. Analyses of the results reveal a continuous, essentially linear, increase in anxiety and depression in young people over the decades, such that the rates of what today would be diagnosed as generalised anxiety disorder and major depression are five to eight times what they were in the 1950s. Over the same period, the suicide rate for young people aged 15 to 24 has more than doubled, and that for children under age 15 has quadrupled.

The decline in opportunity to play has also been accompanied by a decline in empathy and a rise in narcissism, both of which have been assessed since the late 1970s with standard questionnaires given to normative samples of college students. Empathy refers to the ability and tendency to see from another person’s point of view and experience what that person experiences. Narcissism refers to inflated self-regard, coupled with a lack of concern for others and an inability to connect emotionally with others. A decline of empathy and a rise in narcissism are exactly what we would expect to see in children who have little opportunity to play socially. Children can’t learn these social skills and values in school, because school is an authoritarian, not a democratic setting. School fosters competition, not co-operation; and children there are not free to quit when others fail to respect their needs and wishes.

In my book, Free to Learn (2013), I document these changes, and argue that the rise in mental disorders among children is largely the result of the decline in children’s freedom. If we love our children and want them to thrive, we must allow them more time and opportunity to play, not less. Yet policymakers and powerful philanthropists are continuing to push us in the opposite direction — toward more schooling, more testing, more adult direction of children, and less opportunity for free play.

Irecently took part in a radio debate with a woman representing an organisation called the National Center on Time and Learning, which campaigns for a longer school day and school year for schoolchildren in the US (a recording of the debate can be found here). Her thesis — consistent with her organisation’s purpose and the urgings of President Barack Obama and the Education Secretary Arne Duncan — was that children need more time in school than currently required, to prepare them for today’s and tomorrow’s competitive world. I argued the opposite. The host introduced the debate with the words: ‘Do students need more time to learn, or do students need more time to play?’

Learning versus playing. That dichotomy seems natural to people such as my radio host, my debate opponent, my President, my Education Secretary — and maybe you. Learning, according to that almost automatic view, is what children do in school and, maybe, in other adult-directed activities. Playing is, at best, a refreshing break from learning. From that view, summer vacation is just a long recess, perhaps longer than necessary. But here’s an alternative view, which should be obvious but apparently is not: playing is learning. At play, children learn the most important of life’s lessons, the ones that cannot be taught in school. To learn these lessons well, children need lots of play — lots and lots of it, without interference from adults.

I’m an evolutionary psychologist, which means I’m interested in human nature, its relationship to the nature of other animals, and how that nature was shaped by natural selection. My special interest is play.

The young of all mammals play. Why? Why do they waste energy and risk life and limb playing, when they could just rest, tucked away safely in a burrow somewhere? That’s the kind of question that evolutionary psychologists ask. The first person to address that particular question from a Darwinian, evolutionary perspective was the German philosopher and naturalist Karl Groos. In a book calledThe Play of Animals (1898), Groos argued that play came about by natural selection as a means to ensure that animals would practise the skills they need in order to survive and reproduce.

This so-called ‘practice theory of play’ is well-accepted today by researchers. It explains why young animals play more than older ones (they have more to learn) and why those animals that depend least on rigid instincts for survival, and most on learning, play the most. To a considerable degree, you can predict how an animal will play by knowing what skills it must develop in order to survive and reproduce. Lion cubs and other young predators play at stalking and pouncing or chasing, while zebra colts and other prey species play at fleeing and dodging.

“Do we need more people who are good at memorising answers to questions and feeding them back? Who dutifully do what they are told, no questions asked?”

Groos followed The Play of Animals with a second book, The Play of Man (1901), in which he extended his insights about animal play to humans. He pointed out that humans, having much more to learn than other species, are the most playful of all animals. Human children, unlike the young of other species, must learn different skills depending on the culture in which they are developing. Therefore, he argued, natural selection in humans favoured a strong drive for children to observe the activities of their elders and incorporate those activities into their play. He suggested that children in every culture, when allowed to play freely, play not only at the skills that are valuable to people everywhere (such as two-legged walking and running), but also at the skills that are specific to their culture (such as shooting bows and arrows or herding cattle).

My own research and ideas build on Groos’s pioneering work. One branch of that research has been to examine children’s lives in hunter-gatherer cultures. Prior to the development of agriculture, a mere 10,000 years ago or so, we were all hunter-gatherers. Some groups of people managed to survive as hunter-gatherers into recent times and have been studied by anthropologists. I have read all the writings I could find on hunter-gatherer childhoods, and a number of years ago I conducted a small survey of 10 anthropologists who, among them, had lived in seven different hunter-gatherer cultures on three different continents.

Hunter-gatherers have nothing akin to school. Adults believe that children learn by observing, exploring, and playing, and so they afford them unlimited time to do that. In response to my survey question, ‘How much time did children in the culture you observed have for play?’, the anthropologists unanimously said that the children were free to play nearly all of their waking hours, from the age of about four (when they were deemed responsible enough to go off, away from adults, with an age-mixed group of children) into their mid- or even late-teenage years (when they would begin, on their own initiatives, to take on some adult responsibilities). For example, Karen Endicott, who studied the Batek hunter-gatherers of Malaysia, reported: ‘Children were free to play nearly all the time; no one expected children to do serious work until they were in their late teens.’

This is very much in line with Groos’s theory about play as practice. The boys played endlessly at tracking and hunting, and both boys and girls played at finding and digging up edible roots. They played at tree climbing, cooking, building huts, and building other artefacts crucial to their culture, such as dugout canoes. They played at arguing and debating, sometimes mimicking their elders or trying to see if they could reason things out better than the adults had the night before around the fire. They playfully danced the traditional dances of their culture and sang the traditional songs, but they also made up new ones. They made and played musical instruments similar to those that adults in their group made. Even little children played with dangerous things, such as knives and fire, and the adults let them do it, because ‘How else will they learn to use these things?’ They did all this, and more, not because any adult required or even encouraged them to, but because they wanted to. They did it because it was fun and because something deep inside them, the result of aeons of natural selection, urged them to play at culturally appropriate activities so they would become skilled and knowledgeable adults.

In another branch of my research I’ve studied how children learn at a radically alternative school, the Sudbury Valley School, not far from my home in Massachusetts. It’s called a school, but is as different from what we normally think of as ‘school’ as you can imagine. The students — who range in age from four to about 19 — are free all day to do whatever they want, as long as they don’t break any of the school rules. The rules have nothing to do with learning; they have to do with keeping peace and order.

To most people, this sounds crazy. How can they learn anything? Yet, the school has been in existence for 45 years now and has many hundreds of graduates, who are doing just fine in the real world, not because their school taught them anything, but because it allowed them to learn whatever they wanted. And, in line with Groos’s theory, what children in our culture want to learn when they are free turns out to be skills that are valued in our culture and that lead to good jobs and satisfying lives. When they play, these students learn to read, calculate, and use computers with the same playful passion with which hunter-gatherer kids learn to hunt and gather. They don’t necessarily think of themselves as learning. They think of themselves as just playing, or ‘doing things’, but in the process they are learning.

Even more important than specific skills are the attitudes that they learn. They learn to take responsibility for themselves and their community, and they learn that life is fun, even (maybe especially) when it involves doing things that are difficult. I should add that this is not an expensive school; it operates on less than half as much, per student, as the local state schools and far less than most private schools.

The Sudbury Valley School and a hunter-gatherer band are very different from one another in many ways, but they are similar in providing what I see as the essential conditions for optimising children’s natural abilities to educate themselves. They share the social expectation (and reality) that education is children’s responsibility, not something that adults do to them, and they provide unlimited freedom for children to play, explore, and pursue their own interests. They also provide ample opportunities to play with the tools of the culture; access to a variety of caring and knowledgeable adults, who are helpers, not judges; and free age-mixing among children and adolescents (age-mixed play is more conducive to learning than play among those who are all at the same level). Finally, in both settings, children are immersed in a stable, moral community, so they acquire the values of the community and a sense of responsibility for others, not just for themselves.

I don’t expect to convince most people, any time soon, that we should abolish schools as we know them today and replace them with centres for self-directed play and exploration. But I do think there is a chance of convincing most people that play outside of school is important. We have already taken too much of that away; we must not take away any more.

President Obama and his Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, along with other campaigners for more conventional schooling and more tests, want children to be better prepared for today’s and tomorrow’s world. But what preparation is needed? Do we need more people who are good at memorising answers to questions and feeding them back? Who dutifully do what they are told, no questions asked? Schools were designed to teach people to do those things, and they are pretty good at it. Or do we need more people who ask new questions and find new answers, think critically and creatively, innovate and take initiative, and know how to learn on the job, under their own steam? I bet Obama and Duncan would agree that all children need these skills today more than in the past. But schools are terrible at teaching these skills.

For more than two decades now, education leaders in the US, the UK and Australia have been urging us to emulate Asian schools — especially those of Japan, China, and South Korea. Children there spend more time at their studies than US children, and they score higher on standardised international tests. What US Education Secretary Duncan apparently doesn’t realise, or acknowledge, is that educational leaders in those countries are now increasingly judging their educational system to be a failure. While their schools have been great at getting students to score well on tests, they have been terrible at producing graduates who are creative or have a real zest for learning.

In an article entitled ‘The Test Chinese Schools Still Fail’ in The Wall Street Journal in December 2010, Jiang Xueqin, a prominent Chinese educator, wrote: ‘The failings of a rote-memorisation system are well known: lack of social and practical skills, absence of self-discipline and imagination, loss of curiosity and passion for learning…. One way we’ll know we’re succeeding in changing China’s schools is when those scores [on standardised tests] come down.’ Meanwhile, Yong Zhao, an American education professor who grew up in China and specialises in comparing the Chinese educational system with the system in the US, notes that a common term used in China to refer to graduates is gaofen dineng, meaning ‘high scores but low ability’. Because students spend nearly all their time studying, they have little opportunity to be creative, take initiative, or develop physical and social skills: in short, they have little opportunity to play.

Unfortunately, as we move increasingly toward standardised curricula, and as we occupy ever more of our children’s time with schoolwork, our educational results indeed are becoming more like those of the Asian countries. One line of evidence comes from the results of a battery of measures of creativity — called the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT) — collected from normative samples of US schoolchildren in kindergarten through to 12th grade (age 17-18) over several decades. Kyung-Hee Kim, an educational psychologist at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, has analysed those scores and reported that they began to decline in 1984 or shortly after, and have continued to decline ever since. As Kim puts it in her article ‘The Creativity Crisis’, published in 2011 in the Creativity Research Journal, the data indicate that ‘children have become less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesising, and less likely to see things from a different angle’.

“You can’t teach creativity; all you can do is let it blossom, and it blossoms in play”

According to Kim’s research, all aspects of creativity have declined, but the biggest decline is in the measure called ‘creative elaboration’, which assesses the ability to take a particular idea and expand on it in an interesting and novel way. Between 1984 and 2008, the average elaboration score on the TTCT, for every grade from kindergarten onwards, fell by more than one standard deviation. Stated differently, this means that more than 85 per cent of children in 2008 scored lower on this measure than did the average child in 1984. If education ‘reformers’ get their way, it will decline further still as children are deprived even more of play. Other research, by the psychologist Mark Runco and colleagues at the Torrance Creativity Center at the University of Georgia, shows that scores on the TTCT are the best childhood predictors we have of future real-world achievements. They are better predictors than IQ, high-school grades, or peer judgments of who will achieve the most.

You can’t teach creativity; all you can do is let it blossom. Little children, before they start school, are naturally creative. Our greatest innovators, the ones we call geniuses, are those who somehow retain that childhood capacity, and build on it, right through adulthood. Albert Einstein, who apparently hated school, referred to his achievements in theoretical physics and mathematics as ‘combinatorial play’. A great deal of research has shown that people are most creative when infused by the spirit of play, when they see themselves as engaged in a task just for fun. As the psychologist Teresa Amabile, professor at Harvard Business School, has shown in her book Creativity in Context (1996) and in many experiments, the attempt to increase creativity by rewarding people for it or by putting them into contests to see who is most creative has the opposite effect. It’s hard to be creative when you are worried about other people’s judgments. In school, children’s activities are constantly being judged. School is a good place for learning to do just what someone else wants you to do; it’s a terrible place for practising creativity.

When Chanoff and I studied Sudbury Valley graduates for our paper ‘Democratic Schooling: What Happens to Young People Who Have Charge of Their Own Education?’, we asked about the activities they had played as students and about the careers they were pursuing since graduation. In many cases, there was a direct relationship between the two. Graduates were continuing to play the activities they had loved as students, with the same joy, passion, and creativity, but now they were making a living at it. There were professional musicians who had played intensively with music when they were students, and computer programmers who had spent most of their time as students playing with computers. One woman, who was the captain of a cruise ship, had spent much of her time as a student playing on the water, first with toy boats and then with real ones. A man who was a sought-after machinist and inventor had spent his childhood playfully building things and taking things apart to see how they worked.

None of these people would have discovered their passions in a standard school, where extensive, free play does not occur. In a standard school, everyone has to do the same things as everyone else. Even those who do develop an interest in something taught in school learn to tame it because, when the bell rings, they have to move on to something else. The curriculum and timetable constrain them from pursuing any interest in a creative and personally meaningful way. Years ago, children had time outside of school to pursue interests, but today they are so busy with schoolwork and other adult-directed activities that they rarely have time and opportunity to discover and immerse themselves deeply in activities they truly enjoy.

To have a happy marriage, or good friends, or helpful work partners, we need to know how to get along with other people: perhaps the most essential skill all children must learn for a satisfying life. In hunter-gatherer bands, at Sudbury Valley School, and everywhere that children have regular access to other children, most play is social play. Social play is the academy for learning social skills.

The reason why play is such a powerful way to impart social skills is that it is voluntary. Players are always free to quit, and if they are unhappy they will quit. Every player knows that, and so the goal, for every player who wants to keep the game going, is to satisfy his or her own needs and desires while also satisfying those of the other players, so they don’t quit. Social play involves lots of negotiation and compromise. If bossy Betty tries to make all the rules and tell her playmates what to do without paying attention to their wishes, her playmates will quit and leave her alone, starting their own game elsewhere. That’s a powerful incentive for her to pay more attention to them next time. The playmates who quit might have learnt a lesson, too. If they want to play with Betty, who has some qualities they like, they will have to speak up more clearly next time, to make their desires plain, so she won’t try to run the show and ruin their fun. To have fun in social play you have to be assertive but not domineering; that’s true for all of social life.

Watch any group of children in play and you will see lots of negotiation and compromise. Preschoolers playing a game of ‘house’ spend more time figuring out how to play than actually playing. Everything has to be negotiated — who gets to be the mommy and who has to be the baby, who gets to use which props, and how the drama will unfold. The skilled players use tag questions to turn their assertions into requests: ‘Let’s pretend that the necklace is mine. OK?’ If it’s not OK, a discussion ensues.

“We’re not all equally strong, equally quick-witted, equally healthy; but we are all equally worthy of respect and of having our needs met.”

Or watch an age-mixed group of children playing a ‘pickup’ game of baseball. A pickup game is play, because it’s directed by the players themselves, not by outside authorities (coaches and umpires) as a Little League game would be. The players have to choose sides, negotiate rules to fit the conditions, decide what’s fair and foul. They have to co-operate not just with the players on their team, but also with those on the other team, and they have to be sensitive to the needs and abilities of all the players. Big Billy might be the best pitcher, but if others want a turn at pitching he’d better let them have it, so they don’t quit. And when he pitches to tiny Timmy, who is just learning the game, he’d better toss the ball gently, right toward Timmy’s bat, or even his own teammates will call him mean. When he pitches to walloping Wally, however, he’d better throw his best stuff, because Wally would feel insulted by anything less. In the pickup game, keeping the game going and fun for everyone is far more important than winning.

The golden rule of social play is not ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Rather, it’s something much more difficult: ‘Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.’ To do that, you have to get into other people’s minds and see from their points of view. Children practise that all the time in social play. The equality of play is not the equality of sameness. Rather, it is the equality that comes from respecting individual differences and treating each person’s needs and wishes as equally important. That’s also, I think, the best interpretation of Thomas Jefferson’s line that all men are created equal. We’re not all equally strong, equally quick-witted, equally healthy; but we are all equally worthy of respect and of having our needs met.

I don’t want to over-idealise children. Not all children learn these lessons easily; bullies exist. But social play is by far the most effective venue for learning such lessons, and I suspect that children’s strong drive for such play came about, in evolution, primarily for that purpose. Anthropologists report an almost complete lack of bullying or domineering behaviour in hunter-gatherer bands. In fact, another label regularly used for such band societies is egalitarian societies. The bands have no chiefs, no hierarchical structure of authority; they share everything and co-operate intensively in order to survive; and they make decisions that affect the whole band through long discussions aimed at consensus. A major reason why they are able to do all that, I think, lies in the extraordinary amount of social play that they enjoy in childhood. The skills and values practised in such play are precisely those that are essential to life in a hunter-gatherer band. Today you might survive without those skills and values, but, I think, not happily.

So, play teaches social skills without which life would be miserable. But it also teaches how to manage intense, negative emotions such as fear and anger. Researchers who study animal play argue that one of play’s major purposes is to help the young learn how to cope emotionally (as well as physically) with emergencies. Juvenile mammals of many species deliberately and repeatedly put themselves into moderately dangerous, moderately frightening situations in their play. Depending on the species, they might leap awkwardly into the air making it difficult to land, run along the edges of cliffs, swing from tree branch to tree branch high enough that a fall would hurt, or play-fight in such a way that they take turns getting into vulnerable positions from which they must then escape.

“Tantrums might work with parents, but they never work with playmates”

Human children, when free, do the same thing, which makes their mothers nervous. They are dosing themselves with fear, aimed at reaching the highest level they can tolerate, and learning to cope with it. Such play must always be self-directed, never forced or even encouraged by an authority figure. It’s cruel to force children to experience fears they aren’t ready for, as gym teachers do when they require all children in a class to climb ropes to the rafters or swing from one stand to another. In those cases the results can be panic, embarrassment, and shame, which reduce rather than increase future tolerance for fear.

Children also experience anger in their play. Anger can arise from an accidental or deliberate push, or a tease, or from failure to get one’s way in a dispute. But children who want to continue playing know they have to control that anger, use it constructively in self-assertion, and not lash out. Tantrums might work with parents, but they never work with playmates. There is evidence that the young of other species also learn to regulate their anger and aggressiveness through social play.

In school, and in other settings where adults are in charge, they make decisions for children and solve children’s problems. In play, children make their own decisions and solve their own problems. In adult-directed settings, children are weak and vulnerable. In play, they are strong and powerful. The play world is the child’s practice world for being an adult. We think of play as childish, but to the child, play is the experience of being like an adult: being self-controlled and responsible. To the degree that we take away play, we deprive children of the ability to practise adulthood, and we create people who will go through life with a sense of dependence and victimisation, a sense that there is some authority out there who is supposed to tell them what to do and solve their problems. That is not a healthy way to live.

Researchers have developed ways to raise young rats and monkeys in such a way that they experience other forms of social interaction but not play. The result is that the play-deprived animals are emotionally crippled when tested as young adults. When placed in a moderately frightening novel environment, they freeze in terror and fail to overcome that fear and explore the novel area, as a normal rat or monkey would do. When placed with an unfamiliar peer they might cower in fear or lash out with inappropriate and ineffective aggression, or both.

In recent decades we as a society have been conducting a play-deprivation experiment with our children. Today’s children are not absolutely deprived of play as the rats and monkeys are in the animal experiments, but they are much more deprived than children were 60 years ago and much, much more than children were in hunter-gatherer societies. The results, I think, are in. Play deprivation is bad for children. Among other things, it promotes anxiety, depression, suicide, narcissism, and loss of creativity. It’s time to end the experiment.

This article originally appeared on Aeon.com here

Peter Gray is a psychologist and research professor at Boston College. He writes the Freedom to Learn blog, and is the author of Free to Learn (2013) andPsychology (2011).