You know your child needs physical activity to remain fit and healthy. But did you also know that movement is essential for academic success? Your child's brain receives important nutrients when he is active, and when kids are involved in free play, they have the opportunity to develop valuable social skills. This is the underlying message of a new book, A Running Start: How Play, Physical Activity, and Free Time Create a Successful Child, by Rae Pica, an expert in child development. So put away the workbooks and give the pee-wee soccer team a rest. Pica says that the best way to give your child a healthy head start in life is to let him do what comes naturally right now: Play!
Scholastic Parents: In your book you discuss the "superkid myth." Can you explain what that is?
Rae Pica: Parents today feel enormous pressure to create so-called perfect children, and they've received a lot of misinformation about how they can do that. Honestly, you needn't do very much at all, as long as you simply let nature take its course. You as a parent are not the sole architect of your child's future. You don't have to work hard to accelerate your child's development. First, it's impossible to accelerate development, anyway. And second, and more importantly, your child will learn an awful lot of what he needs to succeed simply by being a child — through play, physical activity, and having free time.
SP: How is physical activity connected to success in learning?
Pica: As we're all aware, recess, physical education, and play in general are going the way of the dinosaur, because we believe we have to give children more time for academics, a trend based on the notion that the mind and body are separate entities. But in truth, the mind is quite dependent on the body for optimal functioning. There are a number of studies showing that kids who take part in daily physical education have better academic performance, a better attitude toward school, and higher test scores. In part that's because physical activity literally feeds the brain with glucose and oxygen, whereas sitting still increases fatigue and makes concentration difficult.
SP: What does free, unstructured play do for kids?
Pica: From a physical standpoint, of course, free play offers kids the chance to burn calories; develop cardiovascular endurance; and build strong muscles, bones, and joints.
Unstructured play also stimulates a child's imagination, problem-solving skills, resourcefulness, and self-reliance. When kids have the chance to play with each other, without adult interference or a strict set of rules, they learn cooperation, how to solve conflicts, and how to see things from another person's perspective.
SP: And yet, isn't it in an effort to build social skills and get physical activity that parents enroll their children in structured programs?
Pica: Yes, and not all structured programs are bad. From a social standpoint, there are many benefits to play programs, like Gymboree. But they are only truly helpful if their focus is on having fun, if they emphasize cooperation over competition, and if they don't promise to turn your child into a star athlete!
If you are looking for a program to enroll your child in, investigate your options carefully. Take your child with you, and see if the program appeals to him. Observe what's going on. It's important that the instructor or coach understands something about child development, and how best to speak and interact with young kids. Trust your gut; if you feel the kids are getting a lot of criticism, think twice.
SP: What about organized sports?
Pica: Aside from the possible benefit of social interaction with peers — which will only happen if cooperation is emphasized over competition — I don't believe organized sports serve any purpose for kids under 8. Children that young simply aren't ready physically, emotionally, socially, or cognitively for organized sports.
SP: It's hard, most parents say, to simply send kids outside to play. The world doesn't feel safe — so we opt for structured programs. How do you respond to that?
Pica: If books suddenly became difficult to get, we wouldn't give up on reading with our kids. We'd find a way. It should be the same for physical activity. We just have to plan for it in ways our parents didn't. We have to arrange playdates, accompany our kids to parks and playgrounds, etc. Take your child to the park and play with him — that shows by example that you think play and being physically active is important. But once you're there, be sure to let your child take the lead in deciding what he wants to do, whether it's running wild or watching the progress of a caterpillar in the grass. I once had a well-meaning mom ask me if it was "okay" to let her child go out in the yard and play by himself. I wasn't sure what she meant at first, but then I realized she felt that she had to always be there with her son, doing something, producing some sort of result, or encouraging him in some way. The sad thing is her question was quite understandable given the pressure that parents feel today.
SP: For school-age children, there's been much emphasis on achievement and test scores. What harm does that do?
Pica: Tests emphasize convergent thinking, where there's generally only one right answer. But in real life, there's seldom one right answer. Parents should help their children learn to think divergently, to see that there can be lots of different answers to a problem. At home, provide your child with art materials and manipulatives like blocks and Legos. Put on music and encourage him to move in any way he wants. Let's say you have a tambourine. Ask your child: "How many different sounds can you create with this?" Don't tell him what to do, ask him what he can do. That way, he'll seek — and find — answers on his own.
SP: Aren't parents already doing many things to foster their child's body/brain development, perhaps without even realizing it?
Pica: Absolutely! Starting from infancy, all parents instinctively rock their children, sway with them. Did you know that the swaying sensation promotes early brain development? Peek-a-boo, which most parents naturally play with their babies, promotes bonding through eye contact, and teaches object permanence — the awareness that people and objects continue to exist even though you can't see them. Many of the activities that you and your child do on a regular basis, such as playing with blocks, digging in the sand, splashing in mud puddles, and setting the table, all contribute to brain development and learning.