Parents who push their kids hard to succeed believe that if they gave their kids more time for “free play,” they would not learn as much or do as well in school. Their logic goes as follows: one more of hour of play is one less hour of studying or of some “enrichment activity.”
Experts who criticize these hard-driving parents like Denise Clark Pope seem to agree that more playtime or downtime will result in lower academic achievement. In her frequent speeches on “stressed out students,” Pope asks parents to reconsider their desire to see their children attend “elite universities.” Her message is inescapable: parents who let their kids play every day are sacrificing some measure of learning or academic achievement, but that’s OK.
I fundamentally disagree with this zero-sum logic. The problem is that it fails to take into account the effect of emotions, which are tightly bound to motivation.The bottom line is that, in general, kids who play are happier, and happier kids will be more “productive” when they turn their attention to academics. By productive, I mean that happy kids will learn more per hour of study than unhappy kids. In other words, they’re “firing on all cylinders,” and are better able to do well at anything they encounter because of their positive attitude.
Unfortunately, I don’t know of research that supports this contention that happier kids are more productive (see this article for a discussion of happiness and academic achievement). However, it’s pretty clear that unhappiness, if it’s extreme enough to result in depression or other emotional illnesses, can be debilitating. Child psychologists claim that far more children are depressed and suicidal today than decades ago.
Even if a hard-studying, activity-laden child isn’t clinically depressed, he or she may well not be “happy,” and may not be very productive in the hours he or she studies or participates in activities.
Of course, all play and no schoolwork will not result in high academic achievement. I’m simply advocating that parents recognize that some amount of regular free play will make their kids happier, and that happiness has a positive effect on academic performance and learning. Besides, well, don’t parents just want their kids to be happy human beings?