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Make time for kids to be kids

Watching TV. Playing on the computer. Sitting in the car, being shuttled around town. These things take up a lot of our children's time and don't improve their intellectual, social, emotional and physical development, according to the nonprofit group Alliance for Childhood. The alliance works to support children's healthy development and love of learning.

Instead of those passive time-fillers, kids need unstructured, open-ended play without parents making the rules and helicoptering around.

In other words, go out and play! It's not only fun, but it also provides great opportunities for active learning.

"Learning needs to be active, engaged and meaningful," says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, one of two cognitive psychologists leading Temple University's Infant Lab. The lab studies how children best learn concepts. "Passive learning is generally not as good as active learning."

For example, children are more successful at learning a word when they can act it out in context, versus just being told its definition. To encourage active learning at home, create a free-play environment where your kids, not you, make the rules. Ideas include:

* Keep a dress-up box full of costume pieces such as boas, hats, vests and scarves. Dramatic play, where kids have to negotiate who will be the mommy and who will be the baby, for example, help build self-control.

* Help your child gather ordinary items such as sticks, rocks, boxes, paper bags, masking tape, dried beans and egg cartons. Then just step back and watch his imagination flourish.

* If your child pretends to drive inside a box or puts together chairs to make a train, extend her play by asking open-ended questions such as "Where are you going?"

* A large empty box could be a cave one day, a post office the next, a boat the next. Let your child decide.

* Make paper bags available for puppets and let your children enhance them with buttons, bows and yarn. They can act out original stories or express emotions by having puppets or stuffed animals talk to each other.

* Have plastic buckets and cups on hand for water play.

According to three studies commissioned by the Alliance for Childhood, the time allotted for child-initiated, open-ended play has dropped significantly in most kindergartens, replaced by long lessons and standardized testing.

The group argues that child-initiated play needs to be restored to kindergarten. Highlights from its findings include:

* Kindergarten has changed radically in the last two decades. Children now spend far more time being taught and tested on literacy and math skills than they do learning through play and exploration, exercising their bodies and using their imaginations.

* Young children work hard at play. They invent scenes and stories, solve problems and negotiate their way through social roadblocks. They know what they want to do and figure out ways to do it. Motivated from within, they learn to pursue their own ideas to a conclusion.

* Children who engage in complex forms of sociodramatic play have greater language skills than nonplayers, better social skills, more empathy and more imagination. They are less aggressive and show more self-control and higher levels of thinking.