Children's Play Is Declining, But We Can Help Reclaim It

Children at play participate in complex scientific discovery as they hypothesize, experiment and make generalizations about the world and how it works.
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Merete L. Kropp

America has a problem with play.

Research consistently confirms the benefits of play for children and experts agree that those benefits are long-lasting and have permanent effects on development. However, the most recent US statistics gathered between 1981 and 1992, showed a 25% decrease in children’s time spent playing, despite the powerful arguments of child development experts for the importance of play. Anecdotal evidence suggests this decline has continued and children today spend less time engaging in free play, particularly outdoors, than they did 25 years ago.

To most people, the words “play” and “childhood” go hand in hand, but the fun and games of childhood are disappearing across America. Unstructured time for free play has diminished amid the pressures faced by both parents and children. Adults who care for children have become increasingly preoccupied with goals and purposeful activities.

The benefits of play are well documented. Experts agree that playing improves cognitive ability and develops children’s communication skills. Leslie Bushara of the Children’s Museum of Manhattan explains, “Play really helps with leadership skills, because when you are engaged in play as a child, you’re listening, you’re negotiating, you’re talking. It helps build language skills that are different than when you are with adults.”

Children who engage in play demonstrate increased creativity and inventiveness. Social play provides opportunities for children to process and express their emotions within a caring environment, building their self-esteem and resilience.

When children spend time playing together, they learn to be flexible and adjust their goals as they develop persistence and tenacity.

According to author and educator Nancy Shulman, when “… you watch children at play, they will try something over and over again and fail at it and fail at it and keep trying, because they’re setting the agenda.”

Although both experts and parents agree that the beneficial outcomes of play prepare children for success in relationships and academic endeavors throughout their lifespan, some have unfortunately reverse engineered these outcomes. Thinking they are doing their children a favor, many adults overexert themselves as they strive to reach these objectives through goal-oriented, structured activities.

Adults today are culturally conditioned to value goals, purpose and results. While goals for children may be well intentioned, the manner in which many caregivers attempt to reach these goals ends up hurting children while also causing undue anxiety and pressure on parents. True play cannot be goal oriented. Play is free flowing, organic and responsive with no planned outcomes. When adults orchestrate play, its benefits are lost.

According to a special report by the Genius of Play entitled The State of Play in America, the following six factors contribute to the current decline of play:

1. Overly structured schedules

2. Too many extra curricular activities

3. Increased screen time

4. Decreased recess time in school

5. Competitive parenting culture

6. Parental buy-in and support for play

However, children play despite these obstacles. Play is what happens when adults are busy doing other things. Kids play between the cracks of their scheduled lives – in waiting rooms, along the sidelines of sibling’s sporting events or while waiting for their next activities to begin.

Regrettably, despite these short bursts of play, children who miss out on the opportunity to engage in prolonged periods of free play on a regular basis, lose the benefits naturally developed through extended play.

Moreover, as children play less, educators report seeing a decrease in the sustained ongoing attention needed to create opportunities for problem solving over time as well as language, communication, social-emotional skills and resilience.

What can parents do to support and enhance their children’s play?

1. Schedule UNSTRUCTURED time for children to be bored and entertain themselves.

2. Provide simple toys with multiple purposes that give opportunities for creativity and problem solving.

3. Follow children’s lead during playtime and allow them to negotiate and communicate on their own terms.

4. Go outside!

5. Set and maintain boundaries with particular attention to technology and model appropriate, healthy use of devices.

6. Leave kids alone to come up with their own ideas and solve their own problems.

Finding time for children to play should not be an additional burden or event for parents to schedule into their already overflowing lives. Families whose children are given time to play freely feel less pressure and can save money by cutting out needless activities.

When caregivers take a step back, relax and give up some control they allow their children to lead, learn and discover independently and collaboratively through play.

Parents do not have to constantly entertain their children and fill every minute of their days. They can observe from a distance and find joy in their children’s delight and creative endeavors.

While play may appear to simply consist of idly filling time with meaningless enjoyable activities, children at play participate in complex scientific discovery as they hypothesize, experiment and make generalizations about the world and how it works.

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