Cerabino: Florida may soon order its children to go outside and play

It turns out I had a charmed childhood.

I didn’t realize it at the time. I thought I was just bored a lot.

My mother, if she ever caught my brother and me lingering in the house on a nice day, would simply say, “Go outside and play.”

No supervision. No guidance. No instructions other than to figure out how to amuse ourselves with other kids in the neighborhood.

I didn’t realize how lucky I was.

These days, kids going outside to play on their own is so rare that Florida lawmakers are considering making it a mandatory part of every school day.

For the second year in a row, the Florida Legislature is weighing whether 20 minutes per school day of unstructured free play ought to be a part of every school day for public school students from Kindergarten through 5th grade.

It appears the lawmakers are about to screw this one up — as they did last year, when a single committee chairman in the Florida Senate derailed the bill, which had sailed through the House.

This year, the Senate is all for a law to mandate elementary school recess every school day, but the House is toying with it the way my dachshund used to torment yard lizards.

As it stands now, the House version would knock back the requirement to two days a week and eliminate it for the 4th and 5th graders. Ugh.

I recommend that the lawmakers adjourn for some brief play time — perhaps at one of their favorite local bars — and then once they get their wiggles out, sit down and listen to Peter Gray, a research psychologist at Boston College who wrote a book about the importance of play in child development.

“Now, if you walk through most neighborhoods in the United States, what you find, if you find kids outdoors at all, is that they’re wearing uniforms, they are on some kind of manicured field, they’re following the directions of adult coaches, while their parents are sitting on the sidelines cheering their every move,” Gray said in a TED talk published online.

“We call this play, sometimes, but it isn’t by any play-researcher’s definition,” he said. “Play, by definition, is self-controlled and self-directed. It’s the self-directed aspect of play that gives it its educative power.”

Pressures on making academics more rigorous in elementary schools has squeezed out dedicated recess periods, when children can take short breaks from learning to play, he said.

“The more important reason for the decline of play has been the spread outside of the school walls, of what I call, a schoolish view of child development,” Gray continued. “The view that children learn best everything from adults, that children’s own self-directed activities with other children are wastes of time … So childhood is turned from a time of freedom to a time of résumé building.”

Gray argues that without play, children find it harder to socialize and harder to handle the challenges of life ahead of them.

“Play is where children learn that they are in control of their life,” he said. “It’s really the only place they are in control of their own life. When we take that away, we don’t give them the chance to learn how to control their own life.”

And play shouldn’t be confused with physical education, which is considered “instructional time” by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Play is what I used to do as a kid without realizing that figuring out how to invent a baseball game that involved a stoop, a rubber ball and another player was the fodder of academic research.

I had no idea I was experiencing cognitive development. I thought I was trying not to be bored.

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