Students explore the ‘Power of Play’ in first-year seminar

 12 04 12 power of play
December 04, 2012

Although Stephanie Madsen’s first-year seminar students aren’t that many years away from their own childhoods, most of them didn’t realize how their games, sports and imaginary friends factored into making them who they are today.

Now, a week from semester’s end in the “Power of Play” first-year seminar, these students have new views on the princess culture, recreational sports, imaginary friends, gunplay and some cutting-edge research in nature-deficit disorder, which affects children who spend too much time playing video games and too little time outdoors.

Madsen, a developmental psychologist and Psychology professor, designed the course after seeing a growing interest among her peers in the importance of play.

“I am seeing more and more written about how play is influential in kids’ development – with research in organized sports, gender and play, toys and play, the role of play in how kids learn,” Madsen said. “I thought we could have fun with the topics.”

Still, the course is demanding – it is grounded in the literature with the students reflecting on their readings and research. They examine what play reflects about culture and how it shapes individuals, and have taken field trips to Carroll Historical Society’s toy exhibit, to a playground and to a nearby daycare facility.

At the same time, as with all first-year seminars, the course is geared to acclimating students to the rigors of an academic class. Madsen emphasizes writing and introduces her students to McDaniel’s Writing Center. They gain experience in oral presentations. She even added a service-learning option, giving students the opportunity to put what they’ve learned about play to good use at the Boys and Girls Club of Westminster.

Students explore the ‘Power of Play’ in first-year seminar Of course, all of the students have been surprised at what studies have revealed about play.

Billy Fierstein was surprised that playing with toy guns has some benefits.

“Gun play can teach being protective and civic duty – I didn’t realize at the time it could be admirable,” Fierstein, from North Potomac, Md., says.

Parental pressure has taken on financial overtones as parents push their children to excel at sports and land scholarships, says Charley Olman of Little Silver, N.J.

“Rather than just letting kids have fun, parents are achieving success by proxy – if the kid is successful then so are the parents,” Olman says.

Classmate Alex Matos of Rockville Centre, N.Y., adds that the new trend is to pressure children to pick one sport and be really good at it – with the end goal of scholarships.

The students too have peeked back to ways they played in their own childhoods – and even how they now play with young relatives.

“Now I realize how much play has an impact on development, and I interact a lot more with my 8-year-old cousin,” says Alicia Williams of Gwyn Oak, Md. “Before this class, I never really thought much about play.”

But chances are, it won’t be the last time Williams, who has her sights set on becoming a child psychologist, thinks about play.

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