Saturday, February 08, 2014

If your child is not fond of academics, help him PLAY

Schools and parents lay huge emphasis on training of cognitive abilities like logic ( science), numerical ( mathematics) and linguistic( languages). Indeed they are critical cognitive abilities that can help the child train his mind and then later use it for more producing productive outputs. But what if your child has fallen back in academics and has therefore lost interest in pursuing academics ? Do you have any option? Yes, there is. 

Second law of success states that talent can be built by combining COB ( Cognitive Abilities), Character Traits ( CAT) and Conative traits ( COT). In other words, if the student is not good in developing his cognitive abilities, we can use his school time to develop his Character traits. Three character traits are important later in life. These are to think creatively, to cooperate with others effectively, and to regulate oneself ( i.e to control their own impulses and emotions.) . These skills cannot be taught like subjects. So where can we learn this?

They are learned and practiced by children in play. Not structured play, but unstructured play. 

Structured play is the play where one competes at the highest level, but unstructured play is the play between the children where more than competition, getting along is more important. Structured play has strict rules and regulations imposed by the play, unstructured play have the rules that are decided by the consensus amongst the members who are playing.

Unstructured play is important because it develops three critical character traits that are important for building the talent in the later phase of life:

1. It nurtures creativity in the child

We can’t teach creativity in schools, because schools centers not on answering children’s own questions but answering those questions dictated by an imposed curriculum. In a school, all questions have one right answer and everyone must learn the same answer and repeat it. Surprisingly, in today's economy, we no longer need to perform routine calculations (we have calculators and computers for that), or to answer already-answered questions (we have search engines that can perform the same function). 

But we do need children who can ask and seek answers to new questions, solve new problems and anticipate obstacles before they arise. These all require the ability to think creatively. The creative mind is a playful mind. And where are the children most creative ?

In unstructured play, they design their own creative rules of play. They find innovative ways to negotiate the constraints like space or number of children. They convert their weaknesses into strengths by setting rules that will overturn the normal advantage of a over-aged child. They creatively find ways to bring in a strong partner to compensate for their weakness. They creatively find games where they have more specific strengths. 

2. It builds capacity to cooperate with others

Unstructured play, by definition, is voluntary, which means that players are always free to quit. If you can’t quit, it’s not play. All players know that, and so they know that to keep the game going, they must keep the other players happy. When players disagree about how to play, they must negotiate their differences and arrive at compromises. Each player must recognise the capacities and desires of the others, so as not to hurt or offend them in ways that will lead them to quit. Failure to do so ends the game and leave the offender alone, which is powerful punishment for not attending to the others’ wishes and needs. 

The most fundamental social skill is the ability to get into other people’s minds, to see the world from their point of view. Children practice this skill continuously in their social unstructured play.

3. It promotes Self regulation amongst children

In unstructured play, children also learn how to control their impulses and follow rules.

All play – even the wildest-looking varieties – has rules prescribed and negotiated by the members. In the play-fight you cannot kick, bite, scratch, or really hurt the other person; and if you are the larger and stronger of the two, you must take special care to protect the other from harm. Purpose of play-fight is not to win at any cost, but to prolong the play by keeping the other happy.

In socio-dramatic play – the kind of imaginary play exemplified by young children’s games of “ driving a bus” or pretending to be superheroes or running a house – the primary rule is that you must stay in character. If you are the pet dog, you must bark instead of talk and you move around on all fours no matter how uncomfortable that might be. If you are policeman, you must be rigid and harsh, howsoever you may feel really.  In these roles, the children learn the art of controlling impulses and behaving in accordance with social expectations.


Unstructured play, in the good old days, was highly in vogue when joint families used to stay together. Even though we did not stay in joint family, the families we lived in our town were so close that we practically knew every child in our neighborhood. We did not even know that most of the traits developed in us were through the unstructured play we engaged with our playmates. Thank God, we lived in good old days. But our children are not so lucky. They therefore need our help.

Peter Gray is a rare psychologist who has studied the role of PLAY in developing our character traits. He is also author of Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life (Basic Books, 2013). This blog has been written by using the ideas of his book. For more details, read his book. 

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