Guest Blogger: Don’t Let Play Disappear Says School Psychologist

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?

18 thoughts on “Guest Blogger: Don’t Let Play Disappear Says School Psychologist

  1. Well said, Nini!

    Allow me to put in a plug for my worthy employer, Sarah Lawrence College, and its Child Development Institute, which has done and is doing quite a bit of work on understanding and promoting imaginative play. Here’s a link to the website: See especially under “The Learning Child Series” and “Research and Publications.”

    I’ve also added a new post to my blog, for anyone interested, picking up on the discussion here about the role of parents vis. school, and critiquing the book “Learning Unlimited.”


  2. Thanks, Fred. I did take a look and it’s very interesting- definitely my kind of folks. I want to spend some more time wandering around the website.


  3. Love this quote: “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?” So true. Great post, thank you!


  4. So true, indeed. If you want to raise intelligent, creative, ethical, imaginative, responsible children, you actually will NOT get there with endless homework. Your children, at best, will become robo-students, bent on getting it in, getting the grade, and you will have killed the children in order to save them.

    We are so hell bent on preparing children for adulthood that we forget that imagination, innocence, wide eyed-ness, passion and optimism are exactly the ingredients humans need to advance to adulthood. Kill that and you’ve destroyed the very essence of what it means to be human!


  5. I just found this guest blog entry, and it made me so sad. Play was such an important part of my childhood, and to a large degree it is being denied to today’s kids. I’m also generally sad this morning because while tidying the house, I found a note written on a scrap piece of paper by one of my daughters–I don’t know when it was written–that says, “I don’t like my life much when math interferes.” (Interferes was spelled atrociously, but hey she’s in French Immersion and her French spelling is great!) This, from a daughter who is actually very capable in Math. One night this week she brought home twenty textbook questions and two double-sided exercise sheets of math homework. I suspect the note was written at that time. It just makes me sad.


  6. The discussions this week are wonderful. And I will respond to the whole notion of doing your kids’ homework later. In the meantime, FUM and PsychMom, in your case, it’s a whole different matter. I can see total justification for it now.

    Toronto mom (I’m sorry, I should scroll up to catch your ID but I’m so rushed today), first of all, welcome. And please don’t apologize for contributing! I’ve really enjoyed reading your comments.

    I had to react to your daughter’s attitude about math. The Race to Nowhere director put out that New York Times Op Video recently (Sara blogged about it here) about the AP program. The dean of Stanford’s University’s school of education said she began seriously questioning APs when her daughter came home exhausted after her French AP exam, burst through the door and exclaimed, “YIPPPEEE!!!! I never have to speak another word of French again!”

    That wasn’t the intent. If that’s the end result, what did it accomplish? I have an almost identical scenario here at home. My daughter studies Japanese at school. She is in her 4th year and this level is AP. She knew she really needed to go from Level III to IV but it wasn’t offered. It was either AP or not at all.

    She loves learning Japanese. It’s a very hard language and has required a great deal of effort and work. She’s more of a STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) student but has taken this program very seriously. She loves everything about it; the culture, the sushi, the language, the people and to a very limited extend (thank god, we’ve kept this at bay), anime. We have hosted Japanese exchange students two years in a row. She’s liked this Japanese teacher too.

    Well, things have changed this year. The teacher is obsessed with getting the class ready for the AP. He made them miss lunch last week to take a practice AP, tacking on an extra 40 minutes to his Japanese class. My daughter was unable to eat until 2pm that day.

    How is it that my child could be suspended if she ever dared bring in an advil for menstrual cramps on the very off chance she might give it to some other kid with an advil allergy, but it’s okay to deny food with nary a question or a letter to the parents? Which of the two presents a greater health hazard?

    Today is D-Day to decide on a college. One eliminated its foreign language program so she would not be able to continue Japanese there. The school is a really good fit in other areas but this Japanese problem has tripped her up.

    Yesterday she came home, disgusted with Japanese. She said, I don’t care if I ever lay eyes on a Japanese word again.

    Thank you, AP. Now she gets to pick the college that gave us more money! She’ll have to give up her beloved Japanese to go there. She’s done a complete about face. Thank you, AP, for turning her off to this passion. It’s made the college decision SO much easier today!


  7. EXTENT, not extend.

    DD was up till 2 with homework. I don’t allow this. Last night I couldn’t control it. If I can barely type, just think what condition she’s in today.


  8. Thanks, HomeworkBlues, for the welcome and the encouragement to post (though clearly I don’t need a lot of encouragement 😉 ). Your story about your daughter and AP Japanese is very disturbing to me as is the video op-ed you alluded to. It makes me very frightened at the prospect of high-school. I’m finding elementary school difficult enough. (It sounds as if I’m going through it, doesn’t it, and I guess that’s the way it feels.) I think I’m going to have to discourage my daughters from taking AP or IB classes (the latter very popular here in Toronto). I just don’t want the extra stress for them. Why is it considered necessary nowadays for kids to do so much extra work in high-school to get into a good university? I didn’t work that hard in high school (except perhaps in my final year); in fact, I had a great time. Yet I was accepted into the university of my choice and went on to complete several degrees. So what gives nowadays? Whatever happened to the notion of quality over quantity? I’m sure I’m missing something–something essential that has changed since I was in high-school, perhaps–but I just don’t get it. And I feel so sorry for enthusiastic, hardworking high-school students like your daughter, HomeworkBlues, and like the son of a good friend of mine who has to be in the lab several mornings a week at 6:30 am for his AP biology class.


  9. I hear you northTOmom (I first read your handle as Tom). While I’ll miss aspects of the high school years, a part of me is so relieved it’s coming to an end. Goodbye, K-12!


  10. Quality over quantity in education went the same way as quality over quantity in child rearing. There is no time for our children…because there is no time in adult lives. This life of leisure we were supposed to have in the 21st century is a lie…we are training our children to be work horses who enjoy their lives no more than we do.

    Let’s face it….if we adults were sitting around and having a grand time, we would be taking our kids along with us. But it’s a download. If we start with ourselves, we will be able to solve these problems for our kids. If we just stop buying in and start thinking, the picture becomes very clear. You can’t see your reflection in a wavy pool.


  11. PsychMom, remember how all these gadgets and gizmos were supposed to make life easier? Yet people seem to be working harder than ever. The electronic sweatshop keeps adults tethered to their work lives 24/7. The advent of the iPhone only intensified this. If it’s good for adults, we reason, it must be great for kids too.

    What are adults doing? Why are they working so hard? Everyone is so sleep deprived, there’s so much to do! What is everyone doing? What is the constant frantic rush? Where is everyone scurrying to, in this mad race?

    It’s like the Caucus Race in Alice in Wonderland. Alice notes they are all running furiously but to her amusement and astonishment, they are running in place. They are running running running and going nowhere. She stifles a giggle but discovers no one else is on to it.

    We studied, produced and performed this play as a 9th grade almost year long English project. I still remember this teacher. I still remember this play. How Lewis Carroll was really satirizing the political system.

    I’ve written about this teacher before. How she took us to the woods next door to spend all day discussing Thoreau. I contrasted it with my daughter’s very rushed frenetic Thoreau project last year. The irony was not lost on her.

    I still remember this teacher, this class, the assignments. I loved them. They don’t make teachers like this anymore. Because halfway down the century, we decided to just ditch that whole corny love of learning nonsense. Why make an indelible impression upon a teen when you can just teach to the test? Why make learning fun and memorable when you can just spout data all day long?

    “Who cares if the light goes out in their eyes as long as the numbers are good.” Anna Quindlen


  12. Great comments HWB- Ironically, many adults are working very hard to put their children in high-performing schools and the whole cycle starts again.


  13. Disillusioned, I listen to Toronto Mom (I’m sorry, I know that’s not your handle!) talk about the pressure on parents to overschedule their kids and I am thinking, whoa! My generation did this eighteen years ago. The new kids on the block haven’t learned a darn thing from our mistakes?


  14. HomeworkBlues, it’s funny you should ask that question about learning from previous generations’ mistakes. In my case, I feel that I did observe and learn, specifically from the mistakes of my sisters who are quite bit older than I am. One of my nieces is now in her twenties, and she talks about how by the age of 7 or 8 she had activities every day after school, and thought her friends who were not as scheduled were kind of odd. But this niece also says that when she was 13 she agonized for days over how to tell her mom (my sister) that she wanted to quit ballet, which had become a big part of her life at that point (and was, not coincidentally, a huge passion of my sister’s). My niece finally gave her parents a kind of presentation about how she wanted to quit ballet to make time for activities like soccer and school sports. And it was only because she was planning to replace one overwhelming activity with many others that her parents accepted it (though my sister cried).

    This story has always haunted me. It made me wonder about the reasons underlying the over-scheduling problem. It also made me extremely wary of over-investing in my own kids’ success in any particular endeavour. (Though I admit I probably do care too much how well they do in school.) Interestingly, now one of my daughters takes ballet and this same sister has taken a keen interest in her dance education; I think my sister would very much like my daughter to take her dancing to the next level. But my daughter wants ballet to continue to be fun, so she (with my full approval) has resisted enrolling in the 3-times-a week program at the Ballet School. My sister takes it well, though, when I semi-jokingly tell her to back off and stop indoctrinating my daughter about the joys of a life of ballet!

    By the way, northTOmom really means North Toronto mom, so “Toronto mom” is fine. It’s kind of confusing for non-Torontonians (North Toronto is actually a neighbourhood in Toronto itself), so I should probably change it.


  15. No, don’t change it! I like your “handle,” as we used to say in the old days. I’m really not an ancient as I sound :). I meant no disrespect, I was just in a rush when I typed that last night.

    Excellent points. My daughter attends a selective magnet high school. I’ve survived by avoiding hyper-competitive parents there and not succumbing to parental peer pressure. It’s not easy. Swimming upstream is hard. But now I have friends saying, I wish I’d done what you did. I wish I’d let my kids play in the yard. I wish we’d taken them to museums instead of running them ragged all weekend long. I wish we’d blown off homework more to have those long family dinners.

    Don’t wait until it’s too late. Go with your gut. It doesn’t mean we are academi slackers. Quite the contrary. We have Ivy League degrees here in our household. You aren’t going to meet two people more passionate about learning and growth than my husband and me. To quote FedUpMom from a previous post, because it’s also one of my favorite quotes, “As the writer Florence King remarked, “Americans love education but hate learning.”


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