Free-range kids

 Do kids fare better emotionally, socially and physically when they’re allowed plenty of unstructured time to play?

Children don’t benefit from being overly programmed, researchers contend in a series of articles appearing in the latest edition of the American Journal of Play. In fact, they argue that the tendency of many parents to schedule their child’s day down to the nanosecond may actually be harmful, giving rise to a generation more prone to depression, suicide and narcissism than that of their parents or grandparents.

Peter Gray, the journal’s guest editor and a research professor of psychology at Boston College, outlines the changes that have taken place in children’s play:

In the 1950s and 1960s, and to a lesser degree in the 1970s and 1980s, it was possible to walk through almost any North American neighborhood – after school, on weekends or any time in the summer – and see children outdoors at play. Today, in many neighborhoods, it is hard to find groups of children outdoors at all, and, if you do find them, they are likely to be wearing uniforms and following the directions of coaches while their parents dutifully watch and cheer.

Many adults, especially once they reach middle age, tend to look back on their own childhood with a certain amount of romanticism, exaggerating the good times and creating a standard against which the current state of childhood can’t possibly measure up.

But Gray’s description seems to be more than mere observation. Various studies have objectively reported a steady decline in the amount of time children spend in unstructured play. One of the larger studies, carried out by a research team at the University of Michigan, conducted an assessment in 1981 and again in 1997 of how children spent their day. Among the findings: Children in 1997 played less and had less overall free time than they did 16 years earlier.

The journal authors explain that without time to play, kids are missing out on opportunities to be physically active, tap into their creativity, gain social skills, manage risk, regulate their emotions and learn to become self-reliant – abilities they’ll need later in life.

Age-mixed play seems to have a special value, allowing younger children to learn from older peers and older children to develop skills in nurturing, teaching and leadership.

In an interview, authors Hara Estroff Marano and Lenore Skenazy raise a provocative question: When kids spend time in free play, can it help reduce the incidence of bullying? Marano says yes:

Most kids have built-in, internal restraints against bullying, or, at least, they used to – when kids were allowed to play with each other and develop social skills and when normal abilities to adjudicate disputes would come into play and be sharpened by playing. Lack of play is creating many of the conditions that allow bullies to exist.

Marano also cites research demonstrating how play stimulates the genes that govern nerve growth in the frontal cortex, the executive portion of the brain. Play might not seem goal-directed but it helps create the mental foundation that in turn allows kids to mature in their ability to govern their emotions and behavior, she said.

The two women argue that parental anxiety is one of the key factors behind the steady decline in children’s play time. They may be right but there seem to be plenty of other reasons as well. For one thing, the rise in the number of parents who both work has led, by necessity, to family lives that are more scheduled. For another, families are smaller, thus shrinking the available pool of neighborhood kids for spontaneous play. Between the increasing demands of schoolwork and the array of sports and enrichment opportunities now available to kids, play time also is being edged out by competing activities that may not have existed a generation ago.

How can parents turn this trend around? It may take some deliberate engineering. Marano suggests gathering a group of like-minded parents, setting aside an outdoor space for their children to play, possibly installing some playground equipment – and then going indoors and allowing the kids to play on their own.

It’s the essential job of parents to prepare their children for independent adulthood, she said. “Play is the next great facilitator of that system. In addition to all the great things play does for the brain, the peer play of childhood is important in giving kids social skills to be used in all kinds of situations and is important in shaping a whole generation.”

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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