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Free Play for School Days

Gadget-free days should be encouraged, and here’s why

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By Maye Yao Co Say

Had a good break? It’s back to regular programming, which means it’s time to go back to the usual structured and supervised environment in school. In a more traditional setting, kids would sit in a classroom for most of the day listening to the teachers’ lectures. The gauges of a student’s performance are based on subject grades and good conduct. The traditional school environment largely builds content for the kids.

But content (Reading, Math, Arts, and Science) is only one of the six Cs in Hirsh-Pasek’s 21st century report card. Our kids also need to build collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creative innovation, and confidence to better prepare them – selves for their futures.

PLAY SOME MORE. My kids drawing Skylander characters during “phygital” art and screen time (Inset) Meagan doing her make-shift foot spa when she was eight

My kids drawing Skylander characters during “phygital” art and screen time

Meagan doing her make-shift foot spa when she was eight

Meagan doing her make-shift foot spa when she was eight

As intimidating as the six Cs above sound, I found that the one word that allows my kids to develop all these aspects at one time is play. A major influence and reference for me is Melissa Bernstein of Melissa & Doug toys. My daughter was barely one when I first saw a Melissa & Doug toy in New York. I became fascinated with how to inject play in teaching my kids concepts like the way Melissa Bernstein did. I have never stopped since. I was lucky to have finally met her when I attended her talk on Take Back Childhood back in 2018. Here are some of the takeaways from the talk.

1. Play makes for happy people

Any expert who has studied childhood and adulthood knows that the happiest people are the ones who have been allowed to play when they were kids. Melissa encouraged puzzle nights, game nights, and creating more play experiences at home.

2. Play brings joy without any goals

I learned about our kids being possibly part of a teacup genera – tion, where a person crumbles at the slightest issue. She points out that play is a great solution because part of it is pursuing what brings joy without any goals.

3. Play can help form meaningful connections

She pointed out the rising problem of depression and how it could be one of the top sources of disability in the US by 2030. She related her readings on the science of happiness. She said the only two things you need to be happy would be to get involved in something with purposeful meaning to you, and to form meaningful connections.

I value Melissa Bernstein’s thoughts because it is aligned with my primary wish for my kids to be happy and fulfilled. During the school year, I see my kids push themselves hard in their activities. As much as I enrolled them in various sports and enrichment classes, I made sure there was a lot of time for play. Since we had a nogadget-on-weekdays rule, they had free play time after school. We have our Saturday game nights, where we play board games, sing karaoke, or get into role playing activities. I remember times when my daughter Meagan pretended to be a newscaster or my son Marcus would dance as backup for Meagan’s “Roar” song number.

Free play during school days provides my kids the avenue to try new things, not because they need to be very good at it, but because they would like to expand their horizons. For instance, Marcus is a naturally shy boy. He only talked to one classmate for his first two years of school. He gets to set aside his shyness, however, and perform his heart out to us during game nights. By the time he was solo, he was bold enough to do a solo violin performance when his teacher asked him to.

Last and the most important of all, free play is about fun and being active. It is about them freely and actively picking, mixing, and role playing with all the toys they have. It is using those same toys to make each of us laugh. It is about giving them free hand in planning activities. When Marcus asked for a play date during the school year, I told him to do a simple list of invites and food he would like to serve. A few days before, he even computed how they would fit in the car, so he told me to message the moms not to let the nannies go with his friends anymore.

Every year, I see my kids growing exponentially, especially in social and emotional skills. It is their natural stress reliever. Thanks to free play, I see them taking on more challenges confidently, without much fear of winning or losing, but just knowing that life always has something fun to look forward to. So, make time for free play.

Maye Yao Co Say is a grateful wife to Vinson and a self-declared ‘fun’ mom to Meagan and Marcus. She is the chief operating officer of a local distribution company. Her lifelong passions are child education, literature, and making a difference.

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