"Let Kids Be Kids" – Surprising Advice From the World Economic Forum at Davos

CC BY 2.0. Gordon -- Little girl swings joyfully

A staunch defence of free play time isn't what you usually expect from such highfalutin meetings, but it's certainly refreshing.

It's a good sign when the bigwigs at the World Economic Forum in Davos take time to talk about the importance of letting kids play. At the end of January, four groups -- the LEGO Foundation, IKEA Group, Unilever, and National Geographic -- formed the Real Play Coalition. Its goal is to "create a movement that prioritises the importance of play as not only something that lets kids be kids, but as something that sparks the fire for a child’s development and learning."

It seems that more people are catching on to the idea that over-scheduling kids' lives and signing them up for every extracurricular activity imaginable is perhaps not so great for them. Nor is focusing on standardized test scores in schools, to the detriment of outdoor play time.

Kids need play. For them, play is everything; it is how they learn to operate in this world. In an article titled "To play is to learn," the coalition explains why play needs to be viewed as a fundamental right of children:

"Research shows that play is vital to a child’s development, equipping them with the skills necessary to tackle humanity’s future, such as emotional intelligence, creativity and problem solving. To be a superhero is to lead; to host a teddy for tea is to organise; to build a fort is to innovate: to play is to learn."

The coalition points out that there are many good reasons why we must prioritize play for young children today -- namely, that we cannot foresee the future and play builds useful resilience:

"So long as our ever-changing world continues to pose new challenges to play, children’s ability to develop skills that are essential to their future – and to the future of society as a whole – will be hindered. If 56% of children continue to spend less time outdoors than maximum security prisoners in the US, then the harder the search for our future leaders, creators and explorers will become."

Nor do we know what the jobs of the future will look like. With increasing automation, improving technology, and advances in artificial intelligence, it is possible that our school systems are preparing young people for a job market that won't even exist several decades from now. We need to get kids ready for that by letting them play, as counterintuitive as that may seem:

"The importance of the skills play promotes in the face of our changing world has never been higher. When children play, for instance, they practice original thinking, which is one of the main cognitive processes in creativity. Construction play in early childhood correlates to the development of spatial visualisation skills, which are strongly connected to mathematic capabilities and problem-solving skills in later life."

The argument that I like best of all, however, is that play makes children happy and confident, and therefore safer. A child with physical strength, an ability to self-navigate, and creative thinking skills is a child who's less vulnerable to the world. It is a child who will get themselves home, know when to ask for help, and work to resolve problems independently because they do not expect an adult to mediate every interaction.

Letting kids play is a win-win situation all around and the more people calling for free play to be viewed as a fundamental right, the better off our young people will be. Good on Davos to be talking about this; now let's get the conversation happening on the ground in our public schools, local sports associations, and individuals households.