Children's loss of play: The need of families for a God-centred ethic of work and rest?

May 23, 2010

In his excellent book 'The Busy Christian's Guide to Busyness' Tim Chester challenges Christians to examine the way we live our lives and to unmask the many self-deceptions that drive us to lead lives that at times seem out of control.

The Bible teaches that work and rest are both good, but in western countries like Australia, there is a constant playing out of two competing ethics, a ‘work-centred’ ethic and a ‘leisure-centred’ ethic. How can we achieve balance between work and rest? Chester points out that even the way we 'play' is driven by purposes other than the ultimate purpose of this important human activity. He comments:
"Even our time off can be hard work. Our secular age tends to give material answers to spiritual problems. So leisure has become a thing you 'do' or 'buy'....we no longer 'stroll' or 'ramble'; now we 'hike' with walking poles...leisure is no longer rest; leisure is consumption."
With Chester's comments about adults and play and with my own struggles maintaining a right view of work and rest as a backdrop, I want to suggest that the problems adults have working out a right view of rest (and work) might have many unintended consequences for our children. Our children learn from us through the words we teach them, the lives we live before them and the relationship between both of these and our faith. Children can grow up to imitate us or at times reject that which we have taught and demonstrated. The latter might have positive consequences or simply lead them to other equally wrong and confused notions of work and rest.  New research on the loss of childhood play might be relevant in understanding the importance of play (as a form of rest) to our children. While I don't want to suggest that rest = play for the child (or the adult), changes in the nature of play and the amount of time that adults and their children devote to play is I think relevant to our understanding of rest.

The varied consequences of diminishing play time for children

Psychologists, educators and paediatricians see children’s play as so important to optimal child development that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child   [Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Convention on the Rights of the Child].
But in a clinical report to the American Academy of Paediatrics, Kenneth R. Ginsburg concluded, "Many of these children are being raised in an increasingly hurried and pressured style that may limit the protective benefits they would gain from child-driven play."
Major child rearing agencies, early childhood associations, paediatric groups and government agencies with responsibility for children and families have been raising serious questions about declining spare time, and in particular unstructured playtime for young children. For example, a UK report from 300 teachers, psychologists and children's authors claimed that the erosion of "unstructured, loosely supervised" playtime is dangerously affecting young people's health.

Ginsburg concludes that:

• Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength.
• Play is important to healthy brain development.
• Through play children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them.
• Play allows children to create and explore a world where they can achieve a sense of mastery.
• They can also conquer their fears while practising adult roles, sometimes in conjunction with other children or adult caregivers.
• As they master their world, play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence.
• Undirected play allows children to learn how to work and create with others, to share, to negotiate, and to resolve conflicts.
• When play is allowed to be child driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace and discover their own areas of interest.
• Play is essential for the building of active healthy bodies.

How might the limitation of play in childhood limit understanding of work & rest as adults?

None of the research on play gives any consideration to the possible consequences of the loss of play to the spiritual well being of the child and its impact on later adult life. Neither does the Bible offer too much direct advice about the importance of play for children's health, development and general well-being. But we do know that God ordained work and rest for our good, and in doing both we imitate him. We also know that in modelling the Christian life for our children, that they observe our actions as well as listening to the things we teach them. Could the way we structure our children's lives teach children things about work and rest that we never intended? Could the work ethic we hold and our attitudes towards activities like school, study, chores and part-time work (for older children), indirectly teach ethics of work and play that aren't biblical? What are we teaching them about work and rest in and through our lives and the way we shape their lives?

What should be our response?

The answer to the observed problem of children's reduced time for rest and play is not simply a new timetable at home.  The answer to lives that are too busy and lack time for rest, is not simply less work or more rest, but a right attitude to both based on a clear understanding of God's grace.  This will start with parents examining their own lives first, then their children's. There is nothing wrong with being busy, in fact Paul teaches us in Philippians that we are to 'pour out' our lives in the service of God (Philippians 2:17); and we are to honour God and give him first place in our lives, as we "present our bodies as a living sacrifice" (Rom 12:1).

As Tim Chester wrote in an article for Case magazine last year, the Bible presents us with a "liberating God-centred ethic in which we work for the glory of God and we rest for the glory of God". Granted, the desire for our children to know and ultimately live out this understanding is rarely in the front of our minds when we play leggo with our 2 year-old, help our 7 year-old with homework or 'waste' time with them at the weekend; but maybe it should be, at least to a greater extent than I assume that it is for most Christian parents.  

We need a right attitude to work and play driven by motivations, goals and aspirations centred on knowing Christ better ourselves and making him known to others. Tim Chester reminds us that "...we can find rest in our busyness and joy in our labour." As parents we need to demonstrate and teach our children that a life dedicated to Christ is one which has a yoke that is easy, and one that will bring ultimate 'rest'. Jesus' teaching ultimately points to the fact that our lives need to acknowledge the perfect rest that we find in our relationship with him:

"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." (Matthew 11:28-30)

Other reading and resources

Robert K. Johnston (1983), 'The Christian at Play'

Tim Chester (2006). 'The Busy Christian's Guide to Busyness'

Robert Banks (1983). 'The Tyranny of Time'

Previous posts on 'Tyranny and Challenge of Time' and 'Time and the Family'

Tim Chester (2009). 'The Busy Christian's Introduction to Busyness' Case Magazine, No. 18. [Theme: City Life]

Kenneth R. Ginsburg (2007). 'The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds'. Pediatrics, Vol. 119, No. 1, pp 182-191.

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