• What a Famous Psychologist Told Us About Raising Smart and Happy Kids
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  • Dr. Peter Gray, a world acclaimed evolutionary psychologist, was a panelist in a forum when he was asked why play was important. He answered, “Because it makes children happy.” He was ignored for the rest of the discussion. In a succeeding forum, he was again asked the same question. This time, he responded differently: “Because it’s how children learn.” It got him more speaking time to elaborate on the developmental benefits of play. 

    The above goes to show that when it comes to matters about children, one will only get a room’s avid attention when you talk about how to make children smart, rather than happy. But child development experts like Dr. Gray wants us to remember that our kids learn the most when our little ones are happy.

    We got the opportunity to catch Dr. Gray speak after SmartParenting.com.ph asked me to attend the Jumpstart 2017 Early Leadership Symposium. It was organized by Rethasia International and Miriam College and held at the Henry Sy Sr. Innovation Center in Miriam College.

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    Dr. Peter Gray, who is a research professor at Boston College, author of the book Free to Learn, and writer for the blog "Freedom to Learn" for Psychology Today, speaks passionately about the need for children to play. He backs it up by citing studies he conducted with his colleagues and other researchers. 

    There was so much process to process after his talk. But here are three main takeaways I feel he would like all parents to know.

    #1 Let kids learn how to explore and entertain themselves
    Dr. Gray prescribes “self-directed play” where children can choose what to do during play time. Play-based schools who promote self-directed play give their students the chance to freely explore the classroom with subjects like Dramatics Play, Blocks, Science, Math & Manipulatives, Reading, Art & Writing. Here, they engage and learn to resolve social conflicts, craft artworks or stories for fun, or figure out how to solve the structural problems of a spaceship they made or complete a puzzle. 

    At home, he advises parents to let children play independently as well as with other children. Having the time to join others in playgrounds or playgroups has countless benefits, especially when they can choose their games and make up the rules. 

    Gray had also emphasized that imagination is developed through self-directed play. Children need the chance to create stories, build castles, experiment with water, sculpt clay figures, read about things that interests them, or play dress up. All these develop their creative side, a quality that is not only important among artists, but all industry leaders who are looking for individuals who can think out of the box and come up with novel and unique ideas.

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    #2 Academic skills is good, but another set of skills that may be better 
    Parents who are overly concerned about their children’s intelligence should, according to Gray, learn the difference between academic and intellectual abilities. The former can be taught in schools “using demonstration, recitation, memorization and repeated practice.” The latter has to do with “reasoning, hypothesizing, exploring, and understanding.” Intellectual abilities are mainly developed by the child through self-initiated activities. Parents can help by providing nurturing environments, like when we read to children or play games that involve numbers and measuring. But for intellectual abilities to truly develop, children need to be happily engaged and motivated.

    Gray believes that for our kids to become successful and happy adults, we need to focus on the intellectual rather than the academic skills. He also warns focusing on academic skills can negatively affect the development of a child’s intellectual skills. It puts on a lot pressure for children who have difficulty with memorization tasks and are shamed into thinking they are slow or stupid. These kids begin to think there is something wrong with them and begin to withdraw, give up or misbehave

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    #3 Parents need to create an environment where their kids can play 
    It’s not only in school that children are having less time to play. Thanks to homework, extra-curricular activities, safety and health fears of parents, and lack of accessible neighborhood play spaces, children are not playing together as much anymore. 

    Over the years, we’ve been seeing an increase in anxiety, depression, and suicide rates. Narcissism is on the rise, because people are missing the chance to develop empathy. Children aren’t filling up neighborhood parks anymore and missing out on inventing games and rules of play that are fun, creative and fair. They have less and less opportunities to learn how to win and lose gracefully. Specialists are correlating the rise in depression to the decline in play and happiness in childhood. 

    We, grown-ups, know how play makes us feel. We’re aware of how it ignites our interests in things that we will pursue with a passion. In my experience as a teacher, I have had students who made glorious messes in the art area, and they turned out to be artists who will sell their beautiful work. I had a student who loved being a Power Ranger and is now a US Marine. I had two little girls who always played with animals and plants and grew up to study Environmental Science. 

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    With play, children have the chance to ignite a spark that will fuel them to do something meaningful and satisfying with their lives. Why would we, as a society, consciously deprive our children of play – of the chance to be happy while they are young and lead satisfying lives as adults? 
    At the start of the day, Dr. Gray told us to be skeptical about whatever he said. “You don’t have to take everything I say at face value…Question it.” 

    While we question Dr. Gray’s teachings, let’s also question ourselves. We all want what is best for our children, but what is more important to us, for our children to be happy and smart or to be school smart? If we sat in a room and were told how play makes our children happy, would we care? Or would we only tune in when the speaker starts to tell us how we can make our children smarter? 

    Barbara Server-Veloso has a Masters Degree from the University of the Philippines in Early Childhood Education. She has been teaching since 1993 and is known as Teacher Thumby in her preschool, Toddlers Unlimited, and Ms. Thumby in her grade school, Thinkers Unlimited (Alabang). She is also a partner in Spark Discovery Center (Jupiter Street, Makati) where she teaches the Baby and Me Class. She is also the mother of Lucas, 10, and Verena, 6. In her free time, she offers Essential Oils 101 talks for mothers and teachers interested in healthy, natural lifestyles.

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