Today’s guest blogger is Nini Engel, a school psychologist for almost twenty years in the Philadelphia/South Jersey area. Nini, a mother of three daughters, ages 21, 18, and 13, became a homework reduction advocate four years ago when her middle daughter’s new high school assigned upwards of 4 hours of homework per night. The last time Nini wrote here was almost three years ago. Take a look.
Don’t Let Play Disappear
by Nini Engel
I’m writing as a school psychologist, as a mother of three daughters, and as a former child. We need to value the complexity and deep worth of play in our children’s lives and our own. I’m concerned that play is being crowded out of our schools and homes. Several years ago, I came to this website and the homework debate as a concerned parent of a sleep and play-deprived adolescent.
As a psychology undergraduate, I took a folklore class at the University of Pennsylvania, entitled “Play and Games,” taught by an engaging New Zealander named Brian Sutton-Smith. While my friends teased me about whether I was playing Clue in class, the experience was a pivotal one in my education. Children and young mammals play. Humans play house, war and school; dogs pretend to hunt. “A nip connotes a bit but not what a bite connotes,” was the quote that stuck. That, and the concept of “flow,” Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of a state where we are so engaged in activity that our surroundings, the passage of time, and ego awareness cease to register. We play and process our emotions; we play and try on different roles; we play and master skills and fears. We need play and play has intrinsic value.
In a balanced world, children could learn and work hard to master real skills, but still have time to run and pretend at recess. Play could infuse education and make it less boring, but there are still times when children and adults have to work. Those of us lucky enough to have work we love, even experience “flow” when we’re earning money. However, in civilized societies we assume that no one has to work all the time. This assumption varies from culture to culture and shifts in historic periods, but we give at least lip service to leisure.
I want to argue that afternoons, evenings and weekends should primarily be safeguarded for play, family interaction, and developing the responsibilities of being a member of a household unit. I know many upper-middle class families where teenagers have few family responsibilities because their homework loads are too heavy. I admit that my teenagers are frequently members of this group. When am I to teach them how to cook, to balance a checkbook, to organize a family celebration? When can we play cards or Scrabble, chase the dog around the backyard, or sing around the piano? I want to raise intelligent, educated, ethical children who can relax and enjoy the fruits of their labors. Otherwise, what is the ultimate point of all this work?