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The Pros and Cons of Being Playful

Being playful can have a significant positive impact on coping with stress, building resilience, and avoiding boredom. But for children, especially boys, it can also lead to ostracism and punishment. How can we encourage children to be playful but not disruptive? How can we educate adults about the importance of playfulness and the danger of stereotypes?


Scientists have long known that play is essential to children’s development and well-being. Unstructured or free play time contributes to physical, cognitive, social, and emotional growth. Unfortunately, several societal and educational trends have restricted opportunities for children to engage in imaginative free play. These include “helicopter” or overprotective parenting, budget cuts that led schools to eliminate recess and the arts, and legislation such as the No Child Left Behind Act that tied school funding to student outcomes, which were largely measured by standardized tests. In some cases, children simply live in neighborhoods that are too dangerous for unstructured outdoor play.


Dr. Lynn Barnett of the Department of Recreation, Sport and Tourism has been studying the role of play in children’s lives for more than 40 years. As a doctoral student in educational psychology at Illinois, she became convinced that children learned as much or more outside of the classroom as they did within it.


“They learn about themselves, how to get along with others, and how to negotiate conflicts during out-of-school time,” she said. “It’s a huge learning lab out there, and it’s not misspent time or idle time. I felt it was really valuable time.”


At first, Dr. Barnett focused her research on the environments within which children play. She observed that there were always children who never became bored regardless of the environment and who always found some way to entertain themselves. That’s when she shifted her focus to the children themselves and the concept of playfulness.


Over the years, she has found that playfulness is a fairly stable construct that is related to cognitive functioning. More playful children scored higher on measures of flexibility in thinking, enjoyment, positivity, and social skills, and they used play to deal with anxiety. But is there a downside to being playful or do playful children always get benefits that less playful children don’t? To answer the question, Dr. Barnett followed 278 children from the first day of kindergarten to the last day of third grade.


Through second grade, playful boys and girls were viewed very positively by their classmates, who identified them as children with whom they’d like to play and spend time. “Suddenly, in third grade, it goes south for playful boys,” Dr. Barnett said. “Now children are saying their playful classmates make it hard to be in class and get the teacher angry, and they don’t want to have anything to do with them.”


While classmates initially liked their playful classmates, teachers began rating playful boys negatively in the first grade, judging them to have poor social skills and to be less intelligent. As the children progressed from kindergarten to third grade and became more socialized into a school system that values rules, conformity, and obedience, they appeared to adopt the teachers’ perspective.


Playful girls did not suffer the negativity expressed toward playful boys, who were labeled “class clowns.” This finding is consistent with research that shows that girls are more appreciated by and receive less negative attention from teachers in general.

Dr. Barnett hopes to extend this research by filming the childrens’ behaviors. Are the boys truly being disruptive or are they being subjected to preconceived notions about how children should behave and respond to authority? While it’s true that girls are more social and less physical in their play than boys, who tend to jockey for position based on power, status, and physical ability, Dr. Barnett believes it is important to base conclusions on actual rather than reported behavior.


“If the children really are disruptive, we have to teach them how to channel their energy,” she said. “But if they’re not, then we have to implement some educational strategies with teachers who may not even be aware that they have different expectations and perceptions based on gender.”


Dr. Barnett’s study, “The Education of Playful Boys: Class Clowns in the Classroom,” was published in the March 2018 issue of Frontiers in Psychology.

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