Remember playing outside with your friends after school and on the weekends? These days you’re more likely to find a child in the house on the computer, or at a scheduled sports event. Research suggests that the lack of adult-free outdoor playtime may have serious consequences for a child’s development and mental health.
There was a time, not too long ago, that parents encouraged their kids to get out of the house and “go play.” Today, many parents are so involved in their children’s lives that kids are not being allowed the freedom to have unsupervised play.
So what’s keeping kids indoors? Experts say many parents are afraid. They worry that their child might be abducted, hit by a car or bullied. All this involvement is not easy on parents either. Many feel as if they are running on a treadmill trying to keep with all the activities that are scheduled. There is also a concern that their child may fall behind some arbitrary line that points toward success. There is considerable pressure on families to participate in this hurried lifestyle. Free child-driven play known to benefit children is decreased, and the downtime that allows parents and children some of the most productive time for interaction is at a premium when schedules become highly packed with adult-supervised or adult-driven activities.
“Into the 1950s, children were free to play a good part of their childhood. If you stayed in your house around your mom, she’d say ‘go out and play.’ The natural place for a kid was outside,” said Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology at Boston College.
“Today, it’s quite the opposite. Parents are not allowing kids the freedom to play. And even if they do, there are no other kids out there to play with, or the mother may have such restrictions on the child, such as ‘you can’t go out of the yard’ that the kids don’t want to stay out there,” added Gray.
The importance of play:
When children are allowed to play, several things start happening. They make-up games – using their creativity skills, negotiate rules – using their personal interaction skills, and solve problems on their own- using critical thinking skills.
Theses are all attributes that can serve them well as they grow older.
Through free play, “they are acquiring the basic competencies we ultimately need to become adults,” said Gray, author of two studies published recently in the American Journal of Play.
Research has also shown that today’s highly supervised children are more likely to experience anxiety, depression, feelings of helplessness and narcissism, all of which coincides with a decrease in play and more monitoring and managing of children’s activities by parents.
Peter LaFreniere, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Maine, writes in a separate article, that boys – in particular – need some rough and tumble play to help teach them how to control their emotions. Boys learn that if they want to keep their friend, they can’t let things go too far or truly hurt the other child — a skill that helps boys grow into men who keep aggression and anger in check, LaFreniere said.
“It’s better to make the mistakes when you’re 4,” he said. “Children learn there are consequences to their actions; they learn to regulate the aggression even in the heat of the moment.”
There are certain circumstances in which children should probably not play outside unsupervised. High crime areas are not safe for children to be in without the watchful eyes of a parent.
It would be wrong to assume that the current trends are a problem for all children; some excel with a highly driven schedule. Because we need skilled young people to be well prepared to be tomorrow’s leaders, we must recognize the advantages to the increased exposures and enriched academics some of our children are receiving. In fact, many of our children, particularly those in poverty, should receive more enrichment activities. But even children who are benefiting from this enrichment still need some free unscheduled time for creative growth, self-reflection, and decompression and would profit from the unique developmental benefits of child-driven play.
There has been a significant increase in studies; discussions and articles on the positive affects of child-driven playtime, but a decrease in the amount of time kids are actually playing.
One survey Gray cited asked a nationally representative sample of parents to keep track of their kids’ activities on a randomly selected day in 1981 and another in 1997. The researchers found that 6- to 8-year olds of 1997 played about 25 percent less than that age group in 1981.
Another study from about a decade ago asked 830 U.S. mothers to compare their children’s play with their own play when they were kids. While about 70 percent of the mothers reported playing outdoors daily as children, just 31 percent said their own kids did. Mothers also said when their kids played outside; they stayed outside for less time. If anything, that trend has accelerated in the ensuing decade, Gray said.
Hara Estroff Marano, author of “A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting.” offers a rather harsh assessment of today’s parents. “The home of the brave has given way to the home of the fearful, the entitled, the risk averse, and the narcissistic,” Marano said. “Today’s young, at least in the middle class and upper class, are psychologically fragile,” Marano said in an interview published in the journal.
Marano believes that parent’s dominated by fear, are raising children unable to cope with life’s ups and downs because they have no experience doing so.
The American Academy of Pediatrics also promotes the benefits of child-driven playtime. While academics and social–enrichment programs are important; play is a cherished part of childhood that offers not only fun and relaxation for children, but great developmental benefits as well.