Thank You, Captain Obvious

I just saw yet another article on my social media feed by yet another expert proposing that a decline in free, unstructured play can lead to depression and anxiety. I have also seen many articles purporting that a lack of play can lead to hyperactivity and loss of attention. Do we really need professors to spend time and money to “prove” what seems to me to be self-evident? How could we adults think that scheduling every minute of a young child’s day and never allowing them to play without an adult hovering over them would NOT have consequences?

I am not a parent, so I have no qualification to give parenting advice. But I have taught thousands of children in my career, so I do feel qualified to speak to what I see in the classroom. In the last several years, I have seen a dramatic increase in students with severe anxiety and depression as well as increasingly short attention spans. What’s equally as worrisome is that they seem to have lost some of their ability to persevere at problem solving, negotiate social situations, and entertain themselves. Schools have even gone so far as to have to “teach” grit and resiliency because they have seen it so sorely lacking.

I don’t understand how well meaning adults cannot see the obvious benefits of free play that I see.

I grew up in the 70s and 80s playing outside with all of the neighborhood kids participating in invented games and loosely organized sports. Yes, we argued sometimes over who was safe in kickball or tag, but we worked it out—generally without any violence or tears. It taught us how to get along with other human beings and negotiate our place in the world. We saw natural leaders rise to the top and creative geniuses invent the most fun games. Personally, I learned that I could be bossy (still can be) and that I needed to temper that instinct if I wanted to have friends. Unstructured group play also taught me that I was not good at everything and I would not always win—and that it was okay. None of these are things I could have learned in a book or class.

As Dr. Peter Gray states in his TED talk on the subject, “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.” While organized sports are valuable, in my mind, this is an incredibly sad turn of events. By having all of their physical activity monitored, protected, and governed by rules, children are loath to take risks and learn valuable life lessons. Adults bemoan the lack of children to go outside their comfort zone, but when do they allow them to do so? In fact, adults seem to take great pains to make sure everything in a child’s life is within their comfort zone. While I understand the desire to remove all strife from their child’s life, never allowing a child to struggle does them a great disservice.

I also spent childhood time alone, away from a screen, occupying my time with my favorite activities such as reading, drawing, cooking, or singing. I learned how to determine what I liked to do away from my peers and where my talents and interests lie. I was rarely bored because I learned to rely on myself for entertainment. Children gain confidence by doing that at which they are successful. The odds of this increase dramatically if they choose the activities which to pursue. Schools have realized this, but instead of increasing the amount of play, we have added “revolutionary” learning opportunities such as inquiry learning, gamification, makerspace, and educational video games to replace what kids will do naturally if left to their own devices.

Most importantly, play made me HAPPY. I enjoyed getting to do what I wanted and gained a great deal of satisfaction interacting with my peers and negotiating my way without adult intervention. Hovering over children every waking moment deprives them of any delight they could get from just being. Live should be joyous and fully experienced.

For the love of childhood—let the kids play!

Most importantly, play made me HAPPY. I enjoyed getting to do what I wanted and gained a great deal of satisfaction interacting with my peers and negotiating my way without adult intervention. Hovering over children every waking moment deprives them of any delight they could get from just being. Live should be joyous and fully experienced.

For the love of childhood—let the kids play!