We have reached an interesting (and disturbing) tipping-point in our society, when we can even talk in terms of ‘play versus enrichment’.
For young children, play is enrichment – play is how a child learns to make sense of the world; to put together the intricate pieces of experience that lay the neural foundations of future creativity and intellectual development.
Unfortunately, our society, both within its learning institutions, and outside them, has become dangerously obsessed with forcing children to compete at younger and younger ages. Life for a child in Singapore is becoming more and more demanding. With strict criteria for entry into the ‘best’ kindergartens and Primary schools (and sometimes, even pre-schools), most parents are looking for a way to give their child ‘the competitive edge’. This has led to the explosive growth of an ‘enrichment’ industry – replete with flash-cards, pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo, and children being ferried from one ‘enrichment’ activity to the next with a frequency which would make an adult’s head spin.
But these are not adults – or even ‘young adults’. They are children, and we are in grave danger of damaging their future development as successful human beings, by denying them their right to a childhood. Kiasu parents point proudly to the number of ‘enrichment’ activities to which they subject their children, without ever asking the key questions:
- ‘Is all this really necessary?’
- ‘Is it actually benefiting my child?’
- ‘Is my child even enjoying the experience?’
- ‘What are my real motives for forcing this amount of unnecessary pressure onto my child?’
If my motive is to impress other parents with my dedication to ‘enriching’ my child’s experience, then it is time for a radical rethink. Children are not status symbols. If you want to impress your neighbours, buy a Lexus.
On the other hand, if my motive is to give my child an enjoyable and enriching experience (as opposed to an ‘enrichment experience’), then perhaps the answer lies in learning what we can do – together – to broaden the child’s experience, while building up the all-important parent-child bond. Reading together, playing board-games and puzzles, playing sports, making up stories together, having fun with numbers, words, colours and shapes are all playful activities which enrich a child’s experience of the world and encourage intellectual and emotional maturity in a natural and satisfying way – and they don’t cost anything.
And, above all, it means giving the child time. Time to be a child. Time to explore the world through play.
More formal ‘enrichment’ activities should always grow from the child’s interests and needs. Do they show an interest in music? Art? Are they happiest when they are doing somersaults and cartwheels? Observe your child and you will be guided towards the most appropriate (enjoyable) activities – which are the only ones which will be of any real benefit. Science shows that if a child does not enjoy an activity, then they are likely to get no lasting value from it.
But many parents live impossibly busy lives. For these parents, the right professional assistance is essential. For over a decade I have worked with an organisation which, as well as training parents in how to create a truly enriching environment in the home, has developed a unique pre-school curriculum which nurtures all the key foundations of learning through games, guided imagination, music, movement and social interaction – with no drilling or ‘flash-cards’ in sight. When developing out-of-school programs for young children, we have always focussed on creating the fun, experiential, active and ‘hands-on’ foundation activities that children enjoy – the ‘structured play’ which experts around the world recommend as the only effective path to effective ‘life-long’ learning. That is our definition of ‘enrichment’ and in that, we are not alone.
The Oxford Dictionary defines enrichment as: ‘to make richer in quality, flavour etc.’ It mentions nothing about learning five languages by the age of five or becoming the next baby Mozart. Enriching a child’s life means allowing it to discover how things work, and how to make them work better, and the best way for a child to do that is through play – both structured and unstructured.
Article contributed by Mr Brian Caswell, MindChamps Dean of Research and Programme Development