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Why children need to learn to play

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This time has been supplanted by organized and more sedentary activities. "The time children spend in organized sports has doubled, and the number of minutes children devote to a passive spectator activity … not including television … has gone from 30 minutes to more than three hours a week," Elkind continues.

Even schools contribute to this scarcity of playtime: Some have eliminated recess in favor of more time in the classroom.

"The pressures on kids today also constrain their ability to play and use their imaginations," says Elkind. Kindergartens, which were once dedicated to children's learning through play, have become mini- first grades, focused upon academic learning, including testing and homework.

During his 50-year tenure as a professor of child development at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., Elkind has seen this change affect his students. "Many young people today don't know how to play," he says. Their time has been so programmed, so structured that they have had little time or opportunity to engage in self-­initiated activities.

Some children must learn how to play

Lisa Freeman, a Waldorf kindergarten teacher for 17 years, agrees. "Not everyone who comes to our kindergarten can play at first," she says. "They cannot act out their own ideas." One of her first responsibilities at the beginning of each school year is to help develop the children's innate ability to do just that.

Ms. Freeman describes a typical experience: "Groups of children were deeply engaged in building a houseboat, draping big cloths over wooden play stands," she says. "A boy was roaming from one group to the other, and suddenly he pulled down the wall of the boat, creating great indignation." The children repaired it, but he kept doing it.

At story time, which is told without books or pictures, this same boy could not sit still or be quiet, perhaps because he was not able to create inner images from the words.

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