by Carrie Kirk
Can getting your ya-yas out on a playground, running your guts out, as a kid, create a Rembrandt or a potential Picasso? I'm not sure that's what my son George had in mind when he declared that he wanted a place to go after school where he could play. Here are the facts: He's a boy, and he's 10. He has a lot of energy, and wants to blow it out. Being a mother of today, I put my own twist on his simple and honest request and ran with it -- only it was in the wrong direction.
“Great, George! Do you want to join the swim team or take tennis lessons?” Immediately I took the road seemingly most taken by many parents these days:Plop your kid in an organized training activity. Again, George followed up with another jaw-dropper request, redirecting his misdirected mother, “No, mom. I just want to go somewhere and play.”
A few inquiries and phone calls later, George happily began spending a couple days after school at the Jewish Community Center, running around the gym and working up the kind of sweat that made his evening shower more necessary than routine.
This has gotten me thinking a lot about kids being able to play and the good that can come of it. For George, he sleeps better, feels more accomplished,and enjoys some good old fun. George layered even more playtime into his week by joining the Youth Athlete Development class at IFAST. Meeting twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the class was created in response to what the uber-smart trainers at IFAST see happening with today's kids: They don't get outside and play enough and they're funneled into a sport as early as possible. During the class hour, trainer Lance Goyke along with a trusty fleet of interns led the kids in some pretty fun and rowdy games. Dodgeball, volleyball, soccer, relays pushing the prowler, Gladiator-type challenges -- all loud, all raucous, all good. The class helps children learn how to move their body in a safe and effective manner, giving them the physical skills that you and I all acquired naturally growing up when physical development seemed easier to ... well, develop, when it wasn't the norm for kids to suit up and hit the field at the age of 4 and when the industry of video games and Smart Phones seemed far, far away.
Did I mention how smart Goyke is? Wicked smart. When I asked him what he thought about the effects of running around and playing were on kids, young Goyke explained that exercise actually releases chemicals that cause neurons to grow in the brain. We think of things like painting and music when we think of creativity, but Goyke says movement plays into this as well: “Movement becomes something for physiological health. It exposes the body to shifts in acidity, pressure, physical stress, and other chemical changes. Without these shifts, my blood can't flow as easy (high blood pressure), my lymph network doesn't drain as well (often sick), my bones can't survive trauma (osteoporosis), my brain can't move me where I want to go uncoordinated), my muscles can't perform tasks outside what they normally do (sarcopenia; general weakness), and my brain doesn't feel safe in its own environment (anxiety, depressive states). Movement allows you and me to regulate or 'go with the flow.'” To be able to equip sons and daughters with the physical and emotional ability to “go with the flow?” Sounds like sweet nectar from the gods to me.
Like Goyke, John Campbell, Spring Mill Elementary School's physical education teacher, agrees that undirected, independent play might help to develop a better thinker or at least prepare children to be in a more effective place both in body and mind to at least think better.
One cold morning as the busses were letting the kids off to make their way into school, Campbell reminisced how he and his brother would quickly walk to school on days that the weather was nice and hit the playground before the first morning bell rang. “Lots of kids, it seemed, were always outside playing tag, climbing on the equipment, swinging on the swing sets and playing in general while talking and laughing with friends,” he recalled.
Campbell and Goyke both praise the act of kids having the opportunity to not only play games but to make up their own games, their own rules and their own tricks to become better at each game they play.
Campbell pointed me to a page in Dr. Stuart Browns' book Play, How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul where the author reiterated that many of our kids live in a world of “safe” activities -- playing on video games, taking weekly trips to the soccer field and spending long days at school sitting at desks where skills are drilled in hopes of high statewide test scores.
Brown wrote that in many ways, these developments provide kids with a more privileged and sophisticated view of life, but that perhaps something is lost like a child's “unfettered imagination and freedom.”
Campbell might have a few years on Goyke and both gentlemen have many more years on my son George, but here are the similarities amongst all three: huge smiles, a great sense of fun and seemingly all going with the flow, at least following a good workout. A little sweat on your kid's brow might not produce a future master artist or internationally acclaimed creative talent, but why not take that chance?