How Adults Enhance or Mess Up Children's Play

Joe L. Frost, Ed.D., is Parker Centennial Professor Emeritus, University of Texas at Austin. For three decades he taught graduate and undergraduate courses and directed research on child development, early childhood education, children's play, children's play environments, and child safety. During this period he supervised fifty-two Ph.D. dissertations. He was president of the Association for Childhood Education International and president of the American Association for the Child's Right to Play. He was selected Texas Teacher Educator of the Year by the Texas Association for the Education of Young Children in 1989. Prior to teaching at various universities, he taught elementary and junior high school students. His university teaching includes appointments at the University of Arkansas, Iowa State University, University of California at Davis, and the University of Florida. Dr. Frost's publication record includes author or editor of fifteen university-level textbooks and author of more than 100 articles and reports.

The following is a summary of his paper published in Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, January, 2004;158:16.

Children's play opportunities are rapidly diminishing in the United States. Schools are eliminating recess in order to make more time for testing. National professional organizations and teachers have opposed such testing. The absence of free play at recess and physical education for children has contributed to the growing problems of childhood obesity.

The second way that adults mess up children's play is something that both teachers and parents do alike. Computer play, television, video games have become increasingly violent and less supervised by adults. Children's growing addiction to violent video games has now replaced outdoor play and it's wide range of developmental benefits. Adults continue to be a role model for children by engaging in the same type of computer and television practice that they ban for their children.

Adults can enhance children's play by ensuring extensive time for unscheduled, free, outdoor play and teaching children about nature through hands-on experiences. Adults should serve as good role models for children by balancing work and play that teaches and models good health and fitness practices.

How do adults mess up children's playgrounds? Modern playgrounds and opportunities for play have been "dumbed down" in deference to safety standard, fears of injury and liability and the schools' increasing obsession with testing. Typical school play yards and community playgrounds are becoming standardized with little to no opportunity for creative play. Creative elements are often overlooked in favor of safety standards and such cautions are also unwittingly applied even to natural elements such as bushes, plants, streams and vegetation. Despite such an ability to rein in children's creative and unsafe play, the incidence of injury on the playgrounds is on the rise despite the introduction of national playground safety standards.

Adults can enhance outdoor play areas by creating creative spaces with both natural elements and manufactured equipment. Manufactured play equipment when properly maintained and installed is reasonably safe and valuable for children. However, the value of this equipment pales in comparison to those of sand and water, natural areas, gardens, animal habitats and building areas with loose parts where children are free to create, construct and use their imaginations. Children need exciting, creative play spaces and adults to pass on the rich heritage of play without undue interference.