All Work and No Play


I am reposting this as a back-to-school reminder. Best wishes to all for a great school year with plenty of time for PLAY!

Sad to say, summer is winding down. I hope there has been plenty of time for all the kids on summer break to sleep late, read books of their own choosing, bike, read Tiger Beat and Sports Illustrated, swim, skateboard, wakeboard, draw, knit, play video games, fish, water ski, hike, surf, surf the internet, throw a frisbee, play catch, catch fireflies, chat on Facebook, make mud pies, play golf, play tennis, shoot hoops, frolic in the sprinklers, watch sitcoms, watch movies, watch the Olympics, jog, go geocaching, make ice cream, have water balloon fights, drive by that special someone’s house over and over, etc. I could go on. Believe me, I could go on. Notice that I didn’t mention reading The Crucible or Great Expectations (not that there’s anything wrong with that); reviewing Spanish, Latin, French, Mandarin, or Greek (not that there’s anything wrong with that); completing math packets (not that there’s anything wrong with that), or working on college essays (there is definitely nothing wrong with that!). The point, made very nicely by a former client of mine, is

Sometimes I just need to play! (Joe, age 8)

Sage little Joe speaks for kids. All kids. Big kids and little kids. Scholars and athletes and artists. Fat kids and fit kids. Energizer bunnies and couch potatoes. Young kids and grown-up kids. We all need to play, to chill, to enjoy downtime, and to do things just because they are fun.

I live in a part of the country where most kids go back to school just after Labor Day. Many of my clients, especially the high-schoolers, spend the entire month of August doing summer work for school. They could, of course, have spread the work out over the three months of summer, but, really, who does that? These kids, many of them high-achievers, had to spend the first month of summer break recovering from the last school year. The second month was all about enjoying some school-free time, and then, the last month – what I have dubbed the Lost Month of Summer – completing the math packets and foreign language reviews and reading the required summer books.

It’s probably pretty obvious that I have ambivalent feelings about schoolwork assigned over the summer, but that’s really not what this post is meant to address. The point is that play is an essential part of child development from infancy all the way through adolescence. Kids don’t just enjoy running around, playing games, goofing off, doing nothing, and hanging out; they NEED to do these things. Essential skill development occurs while children play. They practice communication skills playing house and school, any number of good guys versus bad guys games, and fantasy role play games. They learn to negotiate conflict during games of Capture the Flag and street hockey. They build gross motor skills and balance by climbing on the jungle gym and pushing the scooter. They improve fine motor skills by coloring and making jewelry. They boost their creativity when they sing and dance and paint and build with clay. Play is the work of childhood, and childhood doesn’t end when school starts.

If this were a blog for teachers, I would focus on the benefits of limiting homework to tasks that truly build critical thinking skills and promote mastery of fundamentals. I would issue a plea for teachers of middle- and high-schoolers to coordinate schedules so  that students are not slammed all at once with multiple tests, papers, and projects. I would encourage elementary school teachers to read The Case Against Homework by Bennett and Kalish in which the authors call into the question the practice of assigning homework to young children. I would remind teachers that time with friends and family, exercise, sleep,  chores, pleasure reading, and play are all important parts of childhood too.

Instead, this is a blog for parents, grandparents, and guardians – folks who cannot control the amount of homework assigned. But there is much these folks can do to assure that their children spend plenty of time with their noses out of schoolbooks. If you are a parent or guardian of an all-work-and-no-play child, here are some steps you can take:

  • Make sure that you demonstrate, in your own life, the importance of maintaining balance. Your child needs to see you work hard (homemaking and volunteering count too!), get plenty of rest and exercise, and play hard. It will not work to talk the talk if you don’t walk the walk; if you can’t achieve balance in your own life, you will be unable to support your child’s efforts to do so.
  • Let your child know that other aspects of his life reach the same level of importance as school work. Let her know that you expect her to be present for family meals and activities. It is okay to make occasional exceptions, but for the most part, school work should not be a reason to miss a visit with Grandma, a family meal, or a planned family outing.
  • Use a family calendar and engage your child in planning discussions. If you are planning a family outing, include your child in the process. It is unfair, for example, to schedule a camping trip the weekend before the AP World History exam or the 6th grade science fair and then to insist that your child go. Alert your child when he is expected to participate, and keep the calendar current.
  • Avoid giving the message that the future (code for “grades”) is more important than the present (that is, quality of life). A “B” student with a good sense of balance in her life will be happier and more successful than a burned-out “A” student.
  • If your child spends excessive amounts of time doing homework because he is an inefficient worker or a poor time manager, help him develop study skills. Perhaps you can teach her yourself or perhaps you will need to find a tutor who helps students strengthen organizational, time management, and study skills.
  • Don’t be afraid to tell your child that enough is enough. Little is accomplished in the wee hours of the morning or in the 7th straight hour of studying for a test. A stressed-out, foggy-brained child may need a clear-thinking adult to help him see when it is time to set the books aside and get some rest or relaxation.

Now, Everyone, go out and enjoy the waning days of summer with some good old-fashioned play. Then, hold on to that fun feeling so that you will remember to return to it frequently no matter how much stuff there is to get done. Be a role model for your children by working hard and playing hard. And, support your children’s efforts to do the important work of childhood which includes, but is not limited to, the work of school.

[Names and all potentially identifying information have been changed.]

About Dr. Sayers

I am a child psychologist and mother of two. This blog is about the lessons we, as parents, can learn about parenting from the things that child clients have told me over my 20 years in private practice. I continue to work with children and families at Southampton Psychiatric Associates ( which serves Bucks, eastern Montgomery, and northeast Philadelphia counties in Pennsylvania. In addition, I train psychology graduate students and psychiatry residents at Temple University.
This entry was posted in Elementary/Lower School, High/Upper School, Middle/Junior High School and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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