Studies Show Kids Need More Time To Play, But Offer No Constructive Guidelines On How Parents Can Support It

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shutterstock_101193772In the book, Free to Learn, psychologist Peter Gray argues that “the rise in mental disorders among children is largely the result of the decline in children’s freedom.”

Lots of experts agree with him.  One writer ponders the apparent disappearance of children from the great outdoor spaces.  As a wannabe free-range parent, I also subscribe to the feeling that our kids are over-scheduled. So I take the bottom line seriously — children need to play more.

It’s a war I feel I am constantly waging made worse by raising my children in NYC where so many of my children’s peers aren’t just in school for hours a day, but they are taking cooking classes, enrolled in sports programs and socially obligated to birthday parties 30 weekends a year (because every student needs to be invited to every party — 30 kids in a class, that’s more than half the year).  It’s gotten out of hand.  I want my kids to play more and have less appointments in their tiny calendars.

The problem with sweeping generalizations like “kids don’t play anymore” is who are we talking about?  Two year olds?  Ten year olds?  Teenagers?  I think clearly the statement applies to teenagers, but how young can we go?  David Whitebread, a psychologist at Cambridge University, specializes in early childhood and he’s on board.

He and 120 other experts have launched a campaign to get the British government to roll back early education, which begins at 5. Starting children too early on formal learning, he maintains, can cause “profound damage,” including stress and mental-health problems. Until age 7, what children really need is … play.

Throughout the article, Whitebread’s study and Gray’s essay the conclusion is clear: unstructured and unsupervised play is crucial for our children’s development.  Yet when we talk about physical development we have general guidelines to get a sense of what the range of normal is.  Just as I wouldn’t give my six-month old a pen and expect her to write or put a book in front of my two-year-old and expect her to read, there should be parameters for parents to understand what levels of play and freedom kids can handle at what ages.

We all know that infamous 1950s Good Housekeeping article that informs your child is ready for kindergarten if he can cross two or three blocks by himself.  But most parents aren’t comfortable with that.  So how can we offer our children unstructured and unsupervised play at age appropriate levels?

I raced to the conclusion of Gray’s essay hoping to find a least a hint of constructive guidance.  Instead all I got was a stern warning that this behavior must stop.

In recent decades we as a society have been conducting a play-deprivation experiment with our children. Today’s children are not absolutely deprived of play as the rats and monkeys are in the animal experiments, but they are much more deprived than children were 60 years ago and much, much more than children were in hunter-gatherer societies. The results, I think, are in. Play deprivation is bad for children. Among other things, it promotes anxiety, depression, suicide, narcissism, and loss of creativity. It’s time to end the experiment.

If things have gotten so bad that we get a scolding like this, then clearly modern parents need help.  We need tools to know how to support our children in getting the play they need.  It would be nice to hear some realistic options that work in modern society broken down by age-appropriate levels of expectation. I want my kids to play more, but I’m just not willing to send my four-year-old to the corner market alone.

(photo: Zurijeta/Shutterstock)