Can a Child Be Too Old to Play?
Anna Beresin is Professor of Liberal Arts and Co-Director of NEUARTS, Neighborhood Engagement at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She holds two PhDs from the University of Pennsylvania, one in folklore, and one in the psychology of education. Her books include Recess Battles: Playing, Fighting, and Storytelling, 2010, University Press of Mississippi, and The Art of Play: Recess and the Practice of Invention, 2014, Temple University Press. She is co-editor of the International Journal of Play, and enjoys really bad puns.
- Advocate for all children’s play. If your school does not offer recess for your child, or removes it frequently for enrichment or punishment, talk to the principal and organize with other parents. If you need help, contact the U.S. chapter of the International Play Association, or Recess Access.org.
- If your child is showing signs of stress, reduce after school enrichment. Enrichment can be rewarding, particularly in developing a skill that your child loves, but children need to practice exaggerating and negotiating through play.
- If you child is showing signs of boredom, change up the play environment, materials, or social opportunities.
- If a schoolyard is labeled as “boring,” find a local company to donate materials like balls, ropes, hoops, or chalk.
As a researcher, I have been told by school principals that a 10-year-old is considered "too old to play." Yet any visit to a busy playground will tell you otherwise. As a parent, researcher, professor, and play advocate, I can cite numerous reasons why kids in middle childhood, tweens, and teens all need time to play.
What Is Play?
For Sigmund Freud, play was akin to dreaming out loud. For scholars of animal behavior, play is exaggerated movement. For philosopher folklorist Brian Sutton-Smith, play is ambiguity. To link together the wisdom from psychology, biology, sociology, folklore, and anthropology, play is a rich type of communication, akin to art, that is known for its exaggeration and negotiation. Young children speak it most often, and typically can articulate their deepest emotions through play in a way that far exceeds their skill with words.
So why do we allow are our schools and busy schedules to push play aside? It is like saying that a child will be allowed to inhale, but not to exhale. In fact, it is through play that children make sense of the complexities of the world around them, digesting, remaking, and moving concepts through their bodies.
Play and Expression
In 2010, I was a song, this one with elements of recycled bits of an older game:
Eedie Idie Odie
Now here comes the teacher
With a big fat stick
Now it’s time for ‘rhythmatic
One and one, two, two and two, four
Know it’s time for history
George Washington never told a lie
So he went around the corner
And stole a cherry pie
How many cherries were in that pie?
In 2017, children in Colorado are playing “Trump Tag.”
Children for eons have played with themes of danger and safety, through song and through tag and chase. Many games have a “home” base and Sutton-Smith estimated that children practice going away from home and returning to home millions of times in their childhood. Through play kids seek safety, trying on phrases and icons that do not make sense. The cost of not allowing children of all ages to express their irrationality at play? Depression and anxiety.
Play and Thinking
There is a difference between gym and play and children understand this. In my discussions with thousands of children in Philadelphia, they note that in gym, the adult is in charge and that there is an agenda and a grade.
But there is danger if we organize children’s activities to an extreme including:
- Taking away their sense of agency;
- Suggesting there is always a “right way” to do something; and
- Removing ambiguity, leading to passivity.
As more children’s time is organized, and more time is spent playing individually with technology, there is also a desperate need for recess as an opportunity to practice the reading of social cues. Play’s exaggeration allows this in a safe way. When this opportunity is not made available, the danger is anti-social behavior. There is a clear association with lack of social play skills and bullying. One would think this would be a priority in education today.
To link together the wisdom from psychology, biology, sociology, folklore, and anthropology, play is a rich type of communication, akin to art, that is known for its exaggeration and negotiation.
The Playful Body
A playful body is a pliant one, one that can exaggerate and negotiate with stamina. Many countries offer 90 minutes of recess per day including Finland, South Korea, and Turkey. Based on a recent study of mine, the U.S. ranks near the bottom of a list of countries sorted by the amount of free playtime allowed at school. We seem to have programmed our children for desk jobs, forgetting that they are in fact, still growing – making the need for play essential.
Above all, do not let programs, schools, or afterschool programs convince you that a 10-year-old is too old for play, or that your high school student does not need a break. Everything in the social science literature on play will argue otherwise. If your school claims that a 10-year-old is too old to be a child, ask them to prove it, with the phrase: I double dare you.