More than 100 children, accompanied by their parents, converged on two playgrounds in Wayne County during a three-hour time span on May 4.
At the request of Catholic Charities of Wayne County, the Wayne County Board of Super previously had declared May 4 to be a countywide Day of Play, and Catholic Charities staff members were on hand to explain the agency’s new Remember to Play initiative to parents who brought their children to the playgrounds that day.
This initiative was launched in response to the need for families to incorporate more time in their children’s lives for free, unstructured play, said Inga Rojas, Catholic Charities of Wayne County’s director of clinical services. The agency’s counselors work with many children throughout the county, both in school and private settings, and have noticed that children these days not only have very little time for such play, but also are dealing with much higher stress levels than the children of a few decades ago, Rojas said.
Curriculum changes in recent years have put tougher demands on children, even those in kindergarten, and free time is much harder to come by in the classroom, she said. Both at home and at school, children aren’t going outside to play as often as they did in years past, and today’s children are spending an unprecedented amount of time in front of the screens of televisions, computers and other devices.
"It’s a combination of many things," Rojas said in regard to the lack of free play for children.
While many children participate in organized sports, which is a good thing, this is not the same as engaging in free, unstructured and imaginative play, Rojas said. Such play benefits a child’s physical and emotional health, and also allows that child to build the social skills he or she will need later in life.
"It’s the building blocks for how children learn to be adults," Rojas explained. "They make up their own rules. They learn how to deal with each other if they don’t like the rules. They learn how to win, how to lose and learn about empathy without a parent or coach telling them how. Free play allows them to explore the things they’re curious about."
Catholic Charities of Wayne County’s counselors noticed they were seeing more and more young children with surprisingly high stress levels and a lack of the coping skills necessary to deal with this stress, and began to wonder if this was connected somehow to the lack of free play in their lives, Rojas recalled. They began researching to see if others in their field had identified a similar link, and found the research corroborated their suspicions.
"Our research was supporting the fact that since the mid-1970s, outdoor unstructured play has decreased by 50 percent," she said.
Catholic Charities’ counselors found research indicating that children who did not have access to adequate opportunities for free play struggled to relate to each other, express their needs, deal with stress and empathize with others, Rojas said. Recognizing the need to encourage more parents and families to make time for free play, Rojas and her colleagues developed Catholic Charities of Wayne County’s Remember to Play initiative. The first step, she said, was encouraging the Wayne County Board of Supervisors to declare May 4 a countywide Day of Play.
After accomplishing that in March, Rojas and her colleagues launched www.RememberToPlay.org and set about planning ways to mark the Day of Play. They planned Day of Play festivities for Newark’s Perkins Park and Palmyra Primary School’s playground. They let Wayne County families know that Catholic Charities staffers would be on hand at those two parks between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. on May 4 to talk to parents about the benefits of free play. The Catholic Charities staff members also handed out free sidewalk chalk, bubbles and snacks, as well as information about Remember to Play and suggested ways for families to help their children play. Staff members also were present at Montezuma Audubon Center’s seventh-annual Wildlife Festival in Savannah.
"It went amazingly well," Rojas reported, noting that about 75 children and their parents came out to each playground during the Day of Play activities.
The children played with parachutes, Hula-Hoops and kickballs and appeared to be having a great time, she said. Their parents initially didn’t understand why free play was important and how it was different from structured play, but after asking questions and talking with Catholic Charities staff members they embraced the concept.
Rojas said Catholic Charities of Wayne County probably will sponsor an autumn workshop about the importance of free play and later will have suggestions for families looking for free-play ideas for wintertime. Rojas said her agency is not trying to fight technology or school curriculum, but to help children find balance in their lives and be well-rounded and healthy.
"Playing helps bring balance back to children’s lives," she said. "That’s the goal, to give them the gift of play back, because it’s kind of been put on the shelf."