Play builds executive function skills
(First of two parts)
We stop them from doing / What their brains are programmed to do / Like making a mess or touching things / Or exploring and climbing too / We give them games and gadgets / We say these make them smarter / We’re constantly glued to our phones / We’re in the same room but not together/ We don’t ask and we don’t listen … We forget kids imitate what we do … We dictate their every action … But when they resist and we get so tired / We give up and don’t even guide.”
These verses, from the poem “What Are We Doing to Our Kids?” by developmental and behavioral pediatrician Dr. Victoria “Toyang” Ang-Nolasco, sum up the dilemma of well-meaning but harried parents today. Toyang was an outstanding student of mine when she was still in college—and she loves learning. Today, Toyang coaches not only her own students in medical school, but also families from all walks of life.
With her book “Toddler Talking,” Toyang broadens her reach and I am glad that her recommendations dovetail with the best practices that my team and I discovered from our studies of Filipino public and private school student-achiever families (“Helping Our Children Do Well in School” and “Magaling ang Pinoy”). Her cautionary tales mirror what we discovered in our media habits research with teenagers (“Growing Up Wired”).
In her book, Toyang reminisces about playing Chinese garter and patintero as a child, which those of my generation also did, rather than the organized sports of today (which when parents spur their children to win at any cost, harms kids in various ways).
I laugh out loud when Toyang says, “Sounds primitive, right? You probably feel the same way I did when my parents told me they used to ride a kalesa when they were kids. But the wonderful thing is that kids actually played.”
Toyang’s views on play are not just fond memories—they are mandated by the American Academy of Pediatrics: “Parental guilt has led to competition over who can schedule more ‘enrichment opportunities’ for their children. As a result, there is little time left in the day for children’s free play, parental reading to children, or family mealtimes.”
“As pediatricians,” she says, “we’re told to prescribe play to our patients.”
For family businesses, succession poses a major problem. Even if the younger generation often have “more advanced” and certainly pricier education, elders increasingly decry their heirs’ entitled behavior and worry about their lack of initiative and resilience and mental and emotional health issues.
Raising heirs starts in childhood and free play enhances creativity and love for learning.
“Free play builds executive function skills,” says Toyang, such as “planning, decision making, flexible thinking and self-control. The foundation for this starts at a young age, when we allow [children] to make age-appropriate decisions. During play, child[ren] tackle manageable challenges and overcome obstacles on [their] own [without parental hovering]. With each accomplishment, [they] practice the same skills [they’ll] need in the future.”
Free play involves open-ended (or even not conventional) toys. In childhood, clay pots (palayok) afforded my sister and me countless hours of absorbed play, as we scooped up mud in the garden and imagined ourselves sari-sari store keepers, which helped us in math and business.
Wally and his brother Winston Sy grew up in their father’s dental office, where they played with tooth molds and imagined themselves treating patients. They’ve grown to become real dentists. (See “The sons also rise,” April 22, 2016).
“In our mad dash to give our kids ‘the best of everything,’ we end up losing what’s most important and what research consistently shows our kids need,” says Toyang. “Even if all you take away from this book is the importance of unstructured play, it will be worth it.”
(To be concluded next week… )
Get “Toddler Talking” at toddlertalkingbook.com. Get “Helping Our Children Do Well in School” from Anvil Publishing and “Growing Up Wired” and “Magaling ang Pinoy” from Lazada.
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