Child's Play

At the ripe old age of 11, Angelique is already a tough nut to crack. She’s a routine guest in my office for a myriad of troubles and glares at me darkly through her braids on this particular afternoon, arms cinched over her chest, mouth in a twist.

I have a great many things I need to say to Angelique, but each time I try to engage her, she refuses to speak to me. She rolls her eyes so far into the back of her head, I fear she might pull an optic muscle. She’s not having any of it.

“OK,” I finally say, “let’s play a game.” Immediately suspicious, Angelique arches an eyebrow, but I pull out a deck of cards anyway, dividing it evenly into two stacks. “War,” I add. Angelique brightens. Her mouth stays in a twist, but she meets my eyes.

As we play, I watch Angelique relax. Before long, we begin to chat. Ironically, after a few rounds of War, Angelique is actually listening to what I have to say. I am reaching her. This is the power of play.

Experts agree that play promotes growth in all aspects of the child – body, mind and spirit. The American Academy of Pediatrics asserts that child-driven play helps kids practice decision-making skills, discover areas of interest, and engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue. Play is even recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child.

Play is central to our culture at the Boys & Girls Club of Henderson County because it is the language of children. In order for us to communicate with Club kids, to reach them and teach them, we must be fluent in their most fundamental lexicon. This is exactly why we spent our staff meeting a few weeks ago brushing up on the rules to Uno, Pick-Up Sticks, and Candyland.

But it’s not all fun and games. Club staff members help kids navigate through tough stuff. Poverty and fractured families are common denominators among our members, many of whom are labeled at-risk of academic failure, teen parenthood and risky behaviors. Believe it or not, play can be a tool to help them overcome some of these obstacles. Play can support school success, personal fitness and good character.

Take Project Learn, for example. This Boys & Girls Clubs of America program stems from research demonstrating that students do much better in school when they spend non-school hours engaged in fun, but academically beneficial, activities. Through Project Learn, Club staff engage kids in high-yield learning activities throughout the day – think developing language, spelling and vocabulary skills through a game of Scrabble, or applying principles of geometry while playing pool. Sounds fun, right?

Physical play is a no-brainer in helping young people become healthy and fit. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that children engage in at least an hour a day of moderate, physical activity, and this is a snap at the Boys & Girls Club. Some of our best play happens on the court or in the field: dodgeball, kickball, basketball, volleyball, golf, baseball, four square, jump rope, dance, relay races, you name it. The possibilities are just as boundless as our members’ energy levels, which, believe me, are considerable.

Play also helps out with the softer stuff, developing children’s interpersonal skills and pro-social behaviors. Playing games requires participants to take turns and follow the rules. It requires children to communicate with one another. Games teach sportsmanship - how to win without gloating and how to lose without whining.

Would the world be different if everyone excelled at these things? Just ask Angelique.

by Julia Hockenberry