Giving childhood back to our children

January 9, 2023 | 03:33 pm PT
Mark A. Ashwill Educator
"When we treat children’s play as seriously as it deserves, we are helping them feel the joy that’s to be found in the creative spirit."

"It’s the things we play with and the people who help us play that make a great difference in our lives." - Fred Rogers, U.S. TV host, author, producer, and minister.

I have fond memories of playing for hours at a time when I was a child, indoors and outside, depending upon the season and weather, alone or with friends, depending upon my mood. Play was the freedom to do what I wanted – within reason – and what made me happy. It was a golden opportunity to explore, imagine, and create in my mind and my physical surroundings.

I remember playing in the dirt with my toy trucks in my pre-school years, working in the garden as I got older, producing a book-length manuscript about a favorite topic when I was a pre-teen, and composing music, writing verse, and taking photos in my secondary and high school years. This was in addition to pursing a variety of games and sports along the way, including baseball, basketball, billiards, (U.S.) football, ice hockey, and tennis.

That was in the pre-digital age when TV was often used as an electronic babysitter. Thankfully, my parents limited the number of hours per week that I could sit in front of what was derisively known as the idiot box. I had to make conscious choices about what programs to watch in what was essentially the passive consumption of entertainment. Becoming a "couch potato" was not an option in my home.

It's a delight to watch children engage in free play when they have the chance to let their imaginations run wild. Recently, I saw a young girl in a Ho Chi Minh City restaurant pretending to eat soup out of her bowl, spoon in hand, before the real food arrived. I asked if it was delicious and she responded with a smile as her face lit up, "Yes!"

During a recent visit to a clinic in Hanoi, I saw a toddler full of energy running around and exploring his immediate surrounds. I heard his mother tell her mother, "I'll get the phone." She proceeded to open a program for children and the little boy went from active explorer to passive consumer of canned entertainment.

On the other hand, it's sad to see children glued to a smartphone or tablet playing a game, watching a video, or mindlessly scrolling looking for God knows what, knowing the deleterious mental and physical effects of game and Internet addiction. While their parents or grandparents think they’re making them happy, they’re stunting their intellectual and emotional development.

Unfortunately, in achievement-oriented societies, play has taken a backseat to pressure to succeed, which often means academic success as a ticket to a good job and a secure future. Peter Gray, a U.S. psychology professor, observed that, "As a society, we have come to the conclusion that children must spend increasing amounts of time in the very setting where they least want to be. The cost of that belief, as measured by the happiness and mental health of our children, is enormous."

Play as serious business

"Give childhood back to our children: If we want our offspring to have happy, productive and moral lives, we must allow more time for play, not less." -Peter Gray, U.S. psychology researcher and scholar, Boston College

These are not the nostalgic musings of someone in his twilight years but rather reflections of what’s been lost over the years and a plea to give childhood back to our children. In Vietnam and other countries, including the one in which I grew up in a different era, I see children who are overscheduled and stressed out. Many well-meaning parents deny their children the opportunity to engage in activities that are not only enjoyable and rewarding but essential for their physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development.

Too many children are growing up relying almost exclusively on external stimuli such as smartphones (aka "dumbphones"), TV, and various scheduled group activities (lessons, classes, tutoring), all of which leaves little to no time for play either by themselves (imagine that?), or with others.

As a verb, dictionaries define play as engaging "in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose," for example, "the children were playing outside." The second part trivializes the importance of play as a serious and essential activity for children of all ages with a positive and lasting impact on their emotional and mental health.

Play is considered such a high priority for the development of the individual that it is recognized as a human right for every child by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights.

Striking a balance

I remember reading about a 12-year-old girl, let's call her A, who was stressed out because she was too busy when school was in session with no time to "chill." Her daily after-school obligations included homework, piano practice, swim team practice, homework for the religious school she attended on weekends, etc. Her mother believed her problem was time management and that her daughter should continue because she had been playing for six years. Besides, it would look good on her college applications. The problem was A didn't enjoy taking lessons and practicing.

As it turned out, playing the piano was more for her mother than for A. She had wanted to take lessons when she was a child, but her parents couldn’t afford them. A was ultimately allowed to discontinue playing the piano, which gave her more time for other activities and to pursue new interests.

Now compare this with the schedule of most Vietnamese children seven days a week. After school, there are private classes and tutoring in academic subjects and a long list of enrichment activities. This hectic, jam-packed schedule, the result of an excessive academic workload and overscheduling by parents, is one reason why mental disorders related to stress and school violence have been on the rise in recent years.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, it was estimated that 15% of the nation’s population, especially the youth, suffer from stress-related disorders, including depression, problems sleeping, and anxiety (panic and phobias) that statistically affect females more than males. This is not just exam stress but year-round.

The key is to strike a balance between organized activities and free time, scheduled time, and time to do whatever they want that’s healthy and legal. This is often a process of negotiation between parents and children to ensure they are pursuing a given activity for the right reasons.

An important factor in all of this is the child’s temperament, i.e., whether she is primarily an introvert, or he is primarily an extrovert. Introverts derive more pleasure from solitary activities and find extended periods of interaction with large groups to be less rewarding and physically and emotionally draining. In contrast, extroverts are energized by being around other people and prefer that kind of social interaction to being alone for an extended period.

Two boys play in a river in Kon Tum Province in Vietnams Central Highlands in 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Ngoc Thai

Two boys play in a river in Kon Tum Province in Vietnam's Central Highlands in 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Ngoc Thai

The short- and long-term benefits of play

Play as an indispensable part of childhood has a long list of benefits. For example, it contributes to lifelong emotional health by helping to develop a child’s self-esteem, social skills, decision-making abilities, self-expression, identity, empathy, and humor.

Play includes tasks that produce flow, a mental state known as being in the zone in which a person is fully immersed, focused, and enjoying an activity, as a way to create lifelong happiness.

It also includes outdoor play and physical activity, which reduces stress and promotes a healthy release of pent-up emotions. Physical activity produces natural "feel-good" chemicals such as endorphins, that improve mood, energy, and sleep.

If you watched the popular K-drama "Extraordinary Attorney Woo," you no doubt saw the episode about a young man who calls himself the "commander-in-chief of the children’s liberation army." He takes a group of children who happen to be students at his mother’s hagwon (cram school) on an unauthorized excursion to do something they rarely have a chance to do, play.

Making play serious business is a collective effort that involves the educational system and the way in which parents choose to raise their children.

Giving childhood back to our children is a worthy goal that will benefit the Vietnamese people and their society for generations to come.

*Mark A. Ashwill, Ph.D., is an education entrepreneur who has lived in Vietnam since 2005.

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