Playtime’s Over!

Just let the poor kid play!

Playtime’s over, kids! Bossy adults have all but killed it, replacing traditional free play with organized sports, extracurricular activities, and myriad ‘teachable moments’ designed to build a better child.

Over the past fifty years, the time kids spend in free play has declined dramatically, with the greatest losses occurring in the past few decades. From 1981 to 1997, playtime decreased more than 7 hours a week. Kids lost another 2 hours between 1997 to 2003. Overall, these losses added up to more than 12 hours a week over the past 25 years. Much of that time was stolen by what adults see as more ‘productive’ pursuits, such as schoolwork and team sports. But a growing body of research–piles and piles of it!– shows that kids learn best when left to what they do best: play.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP): “play…is essential to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth.” Play is so important to optimal child development that the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights recognizes it as a right of every child. Classical educator Christopher Perrin notes that the ancient Greeks saw play as so fundamental to children that the word pazein (to play) is related to the word for child, pais. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates recognizes the wisdom of letting children learn through play: “Don’t use force in training children in the studies but rather play. In that way you can better discern what each child is natural directed towards.”

What is play?

Not all children’s activities qualify as play. Most serious scholars of play (and there are many, odd as that may seem) don’t even group organized activities like sports in the same category. Anthropologist David Lancy, author of the highly-acclaimed (and very readable) text, The Anthropology of Childhood, views the idea that “adults might intervene to structure or control children’s play” as a “contradiction in terms” because for those who study play in culture around the world, the very definition includes attributes like “voluntary”, “purposeless”, “child-centered” “autonomous” and “autotelic” (= an end in itself). That is, “play” structured by adults isn’t play at all and fails to provide the myriad essential benefits that children and other mammals can only get from free play. According to Boston College psychology professor, Peter Gray, “free play refers to activity that is freely chosen and directed by the participants and undertaken for its own sake, not consciously pursued to achieve ends that are distinct from the activity itself. Thus, adult-directed sports and games for children do not fall into the category of free play.”

The benefits of free play

Decades of research compiled by the AAP strongly suggests that undirected, unstructured play, or free play “allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills.” When play is child-driven, children have the opportunity to “practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue.” By contrast, “when play is controlled by adults, children acquiesce to adult rules and concerns and lose some of the benefits play offers them, particularly in developing creativity, leadership, and group skills.” A robust study led by Dr. Jane E. Barker of the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of Colorado Boulder found that “[t]he more time that children spent in less-structured activities, the better their self-directed executive functioning. The opposite was true of structured activities, which predicted poorer self-directed executive functioning.” (Executive functioning encompasses those skills that help people gets things done, such as plan, focus, manage time, and control behavior).

Dr. Sergio Pellis, a neuroscientist at University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, thinks “the function of play is to build pro-social brains, social brains that know how to interact with others in positive ways.” His research has shown that play leads to changes in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is most highly developed in humans and is responsible for executive functioning. But only free play produced this kind of brain development—play without adult intervention, coaches or rulebooks. It appears that the negotiation and problem-solving involved in even the simplest children’s games build the circuits in the brain that are essential for navigating the many complex social interactions and challenges that are part of human life.

If play is so critical to developing bodies and minds, why do kids get so little of it these days? What attitudes and activities have contributed to the loss of free play and what can we do to reverse those trends? I’ll examine these questions and more later in the week. In the meantime, check out the fun video I made with the kids about child’s play, a spoof on that Disney song, called ‘Let Them Go!’

What are your memories of playing as a child? Were you allowed (or expected) to entertain yourself or did you spend time in organzied activities? What do you think about the state of children’s play today? Let us know in the comments below! 

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Danielle Meitiv is a scientist, writer, and mother of kids who roam.  She loves to talk about kids, parents, and society on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a passionate and opinionated public speaker and is represented by Louise Fury of The Bent Agency.




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