Baby Ananya (name changed), 6 years old, was brought to my clinic with the main complaint that she does not want to go to school. More specifically, she does not want to attend her school, but wants to attend her cousin Gaurav’s (name changed) school. The indignant mother found the child’s complaint ridiculous, because Ananya had been admitted to one of the prestigious schools in the city, probably after paying a hefty donation; while Gaurav’s school was a new, relatively unheard of ‘Montessori’ school, the name of which cannot be mentioned in the same breath as that of the former. The reason given by the child was that Gaurav has so much time to play, while she hardly even gets to go outside. All her waking hours were occupied by school, tuitions, and homework, leaving little time for anything else, while at the same time she could see her cousin playing outside most of the time! I was moved by the innocent child’s attempt to convey her frustrations to her un-understanding parents, and decided to throw some light on this increasingly common problem. (Dr. Naveen Kini)

Over the years, I have made a few observations:

• Little ones are getting stressed at a tender age, especially in the urban areas, as a direct result of parents compelling their children to excel academically.
• A difference of even one to two marks, when compared to other children, makes some parents tense, since they always want their child to be ‘first’ in all activities.
• Harsh punishments (at least from the child’s point of view) are meted out if the child does not meet the expectations of the parents, like “I have told my son that if he does not get the first rank, he will not be allowed to watch Pogo and Cartoon Network for the whole month”.
• A large majority of parents approach the issue wrongly, trying to fulfil their own dreams through their children. Parents start moulding and confusing their children from early childhood, and thus fail to recognise their natural talent. This way, they may lose a good mathematician in their child, and get a bad doctor or engineer; in other words, they do not allow the inborn talents of their child to flourish.

On questioning, the offended retort given by the parent is “is it wrong for me to aspire to make my child a doctor like you?” While fully agreeing with them that as a parent you always will wish the best for your children, I try in vain to make them understand that I have never taken tuitions, and like most people from my generation, have always played outside for at least 2 to 3 hours every day. I also point out that most of the time, I wasn’t even in the top 10 ranks in the class. “But you were intelligent, that is why you could manage” is the next retort. I wish I could easily make all the parents understand that intelligence and academic excellence plays only a small part in the future success of the child, and forcing a child to excel only in that leaves the child seriously underequipped in ‘soft skills’ like humour, compassion, negotiative ability, capacity to share, ability to tolerate failure etc. which are equally, if not more important ingredients for success. Here, I would like to point out that more than the parents, our educational system is partly to blame, for stressing more on ‘ranks’ and ‘marks’, and not on ‘ability’ and ‘aptitude’. Children as young as 3 to 4 years are made to feel inadequate or ‘failures’, just because they do not conform to the conventional and ‘time defined’ notion of a good student.

Why is it important for a child to play?

The saying ‘all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’ is spot on. Playing with others will help a child to:

• Develop social skills. It will teach a child to take turns, to share and to moderate their behaviour. By learning to play by the rules of the game children learn the meaning of rules and boundaries.
• Develop imagination. Children spend most of their lives playing by somebody else’s rules. By using their imagination they can live a world where they have control. Imaginative play helps children in working through difficult situations in a safe environment (e.g. bullying), is fantastic for building confidence and should be actively encouraged!
• Increase creativity. Activities like drawing, painting, writing stories/poems, modelling etc will encourage them to express themselves, become confident and find their own sense of identity.
• Improve communication. Activities like telling stories, playing ‘running and catching’, and role playing with dolls etc. helps the child to improve its vocabulary, and also improve non-verbal communication (such as body language and expressions). Being able to effectively communicate with people is a powerful skill, and such play activity helps children to be able to say what they want, listen to others and interpret what goes on around them.
• Keep healthy! Unlike adults, most children do not need any motivation to be physically active. Activities like running, jumping, climbing, skipping etc. give them great pleasure, while at the same time help them burn the extra calories they gain from chocolates, chips etc. that they regularly consume.

Here are some tips for parents:

• Your child should get at least 2 hours of play activity, both physical and mental, every day of the week. This ensures that your child is relaxed and stress free, and can learn and grasp lessons more easily.
• Ensure a minimum of 9 to 10 hours of sleep per day.
• Reduce your child’s exposure to electronic media like TV and computers, and also gadgets like mobile phones, Ipad, video games etc. This will automatically force the child to play outside, and be more physically active.
• Try and not become a victim of ‘one-upmanship’ and ‘fear mongering’. There is no need to teach a young child to ‘name all the states of India’ or ‘recognise the flags of all the countries’ etc, if the child is not interested. Similarly tuitions, after school special classes etc. are not required at all, and do not help most children in any way.
• Do not limit your child’s outdoor activities out of fear that the child may get hurt, may get lost, may get bullied by other kids etc. Adventurous play, like cycling, skating, rock climbing etc, even if it involves a minimal amount of risk, is a great way for children to learn where their limits are, and teaches children to judge for themselves whether risk exists in a situation, and how to handle the given risk. It prepares them for being more independent, thus helping them to stay confident and safe in future.
• Lead by example. Stop being a ‘couch potato’, and start being more physically active. Participating in games activity with your child is a great way to bond, and benefits will begin to show on your health and waistline too!
• At the same time, don’t feel guilty if you don’t have time to play with your children. Kids benefit from playing independently, and giving them the freedom to play unsupervised is not only good for your children, it gives you the time for other priorities too.
• Make rules, but be a little flexible. Strict enforcement of rules, and illogical restrictions will only encourage rebellion and disobedience.

Related Article: Childhood stress

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