Kids need more time to play

toddlers playing in the mud
© K Martinko

Parents are booking their kids' lives full of extra-curricular activities, but the need for unscheduled play time is tragically overlooked.

Summer vacation has begun. I’m at home all day with my two energetic sons bouncing around the house, and I’m feeling as apprehensive about figuring out how to fill the hours as they are overjoyed at being released from the confines of school. It was tempting to register them for summer activities – music and art camps, sports teams, the day camps offered by every church in town – in order to have time to myself, but that would mean my kids would miss out on the free, unscheduled hours of play that make summer such a wonderful time, and I don’t want to take that away from them if I don’t have to.

Children’s lives in general are far too over-scheduled. They put in long school days, with several hours of homework at night. Then there are the early morning sports practices and the after-school music lessons, clubs, more sports, martial arts, language and dance classes. Many of these activities require weekend travel to out-of-town games or competitions, which means that some families are on the go all the time.

I don’t want to live like that because I don’t believe that the benefits of exposing my kids to a plethora of extracurricular activities outweigh the costs. Play is the most important thing a child can do, and its loss has serious repercussions for child development. In an article called “Give Childhood back to Children,” neuro-psychologist Peter Gray explains why play is crucial for children. It is how children practice the skills they’ll eventually need as adults, such as the abilities to think creatively, to get along with other people and cooperate effectively, and to control their own impulses and emotions.

When children don’t have access to play, bad things happen. Emotional disorders such as depression and anxiety are 5 to 8 times higher among children than they were in the 1950s. Empathy has decreased and narcissism has increased since psychologists began measuring these in the 1970s. Other academic assessments have found that creative thinking has decreased drastically in the past thirty years. All of these unfortunate changes follow the decline of play, which is “exactly what we would predict from our knowledge of play’s purposes.”

Gray describes tests in which baby monkeys and rats are deprived of formative play. (It sounds cruel, but is not much different than what we’ve been doing to children over the past 50 years.) These animals become emotionally crippled:

“When placed in a moderately frightening environment, they overreact with fear. They panic and freeze in a corner and never explore the environment as a normal monkey or rat would. When placed with an unfamiliar peer, they may alternate between panic and inappropriate, ineffective aggression. They are incapable of making friends.”

Schools, with their one-size-fits-all curricula and right-and-wrong answers, do little to foster creativity in children. They don’t even allow creative play. Due to the litigious society in which we live, nobody wants to be held responsible for injuries caused by playing risky, physical games.

One principal in New Zealand, however, has gone against the grain, tossing out all playground rules at Swanson School in Auckland. Kids can play with the dismantled parts of the play equipment, build their own structures, flip tires, and climb trees. The results have been wonderfully positive:

“Fewer children were getting hurt on the playground. Students focused better in class. There was also less bullying, less tattling. Incidents of vandalism had dropped off.”

The problem is that unsupervised playtime terrifies all parents. There is so much fear of stranger danger, much of it propagated by the media, that no one wants to let their kids out of sight for a minute. We’re all afraid of getting sued. There is social pressure to have the highest A-student in the class, the star athlete, the multi-lingual valedictorian. All of these factors, which are thought to benefit our children, end up hurting them in ways we often don’t think about.

That is why I’ve decided to de-schedule my kids this summer. There is plenty for them to learn from themselves and from nature; they don’t need another adult instructor guiding every move. I’ll have to take a step back, supervise from a distance (they’re still very young), and let them dictate what the day’s adventures will be.

Tags: Kids

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