Free play is a healthy, essential part of childhood, and all children are afforded ample, unscheduled, independent, non-screen time to be creative, to reflect, and to decompress. A significant amount of play should be child driven rather than adult directed. The loss of playtime has resulted in a rise in depression and anxiety.
Play is and should be a cherished part of childhood that offers our kids important developmental benefits and parents the opportunity to fully engage with their children.
Today, there are multiple forces are interacting to actually reduce many child’s abilities to reap the benefits of play. As we strive to create the optimal developmental environment for our children, it remains imperative that play is included along with academic and social enrichment be made available to all children to allow them to fully develop socially, emotionally and intellectually.
Active child-centered play is a time-tested way of producing healthy, fit young bodies and emotionally stable young adults.
Many of us who are parents today, had time to play, explore, the time to get bored and independently figure out how to fill the void that resulted from boredom. We had time to get into trouble and think our way out of it, along with time to daydream, time to talk to our friends, role-play and other. Today’s kids do not have this luxury.
Today, organized sports replace ‘pickup’ playground games; organized out of school classes and tutoring sessions replace hobbies, and parents’ fears forbid children from going out to play with other kids, away from home, unsupervised.
It is well documented that since approximately 1950 there has been a significant increase in anxiety and depression in teens and young adults and Dr. Peter Gray, psychologist and research professor at Boston College and is the author of Free to Learn (2013) cites several studies documenting this rise.
One study demonstrated that 5 to 8 times as many children and college students reported clinically significant depression or anxiety than 50 years ago and another acknowledged a similar trend in the 14-16-year-old age group between 1948 and 1989.
According to Dr. Gray, “clinical questionnaires aimed at assessing anxiety and depression, for example, have been given in the unchanged form to normative groups of schoolchildren in the US ever since the 1950s. Analyses of the results reveal a continuous, substantially linear, increase in anxiety and depression in young people over the decades, such that the rates of what today would be diagnosed as generalized anxiety disorder and major depression are 5-8 times what they were in the 1950s. Over the same period, the suicide rate for young people aged 15 to 24 has more than doubled, and that for children under age 15 has quadrupled.
Suicide rates quadrupled from 1950 to 2005 for children under 15 years old and teens and young adults ages 15-25, they doubled.
The decline in the opportunity to have free active play has also been accompanied by a decrease in empathy and a rise in narcissism, both of which have been assessed since the late 1970s with standard questionnaires given to normative samples of college students.
Empathy refers to the ability and tendency to see from another person’s point of view and experience what that person experiences.
Narcissism refers to inflated self-regard, coupled with a lack of concern for others and an inability to connect emotionally with others.
A decline in empathy and a rise in narcissism are exactly what we would expect to see in children who have little opportunity to play socially.
Children can’t learn these social skills and values in school because school is an authoritarian, not a democratic setting. The school fosters competition, not co-operation; and children there are not free to quit when others fail to respect their needs and wishes.
Gray believes that the loss of unstructured, free play for play’s sake is at the core of this alarming observation and that as a society, we should reassess the role of free play and the factors that seem to have all but eliminated it from our children’s lives.
When parents realize the significant role that free play can take in the development of emotionally healthy children and adults, they may wish to reassess the priorities ruling their children’s lives.
The competing needs for childcare, academic and athletic success and children’s safety are compelling, as are the need and desire to have emotional developed and happy kids, without such the first is not possible.
Although we may be able to afford the best opportunities for our kids, this may not be in our best interest. Shuttling their children between numerous activities may not be the best use of quality time.
Kids will be poised for success, basking in the knowledge that their parents absolutely and unconditionally love them. This love and attention are best demonstrated when parents serve as role models, and family members make time to cherish one another: time to be together, to listen, time to actively play, and to talk, nothing more and nothing less.
The most valuable and useful character traits that will prepare our children for success arise not from extracurricular or academic commitments but a firm grounding in parental love, role modeling, and guidance.
The cornerstones of parenting—listening, caring, and guiding through efficient and developmentally appropriate discipline—and sharing pleasurable time together are the true predictors of childhood, and they serve as a springboard toward a happy, successful adulthood.
As parents, we need to organize playgroups beginning from an early preschool age of 2.5 to 3 years, when many children move from parallel play to cooperative play to help our kids with the process of socialization.
As parents, we need to encourage our children to explore a variety of interests in a balanced, well thought out way without feeling pressured to excel in each area. We need to avoid conveying the unrealistic expectations that each and every child needs to excel in multiple areas to be considered successful or prepared to compete in the world.
We should promote balance in our kids who are actively encouraged to become an expert in only 1 area (e.g. a particular sport or musical instrument) to the detriment of having the opportunity to explore other areas of interest.
As parents we need to evaluate the claims made by marketers and advertisers about the products or interventions designed to produce super-children, are they factual or just selling us a product that at the end of the day serves no purpose or may cause unknown harm.
As we choose childcare and early education programs for their children, realize the importance of choosing settings that offer more than “academic preparedness.” We need to pay attention to whether programs take into consideration the social and emotional developmental needs of our kids.
We need to watch and help our children through any period where the manifestations of stress, anxiety, and depression are developing with our kids and work actively to help our children to resolve the situation with their total input. Talk through potential solutions and let the child lead the way. This reinforces the ability to problem solve and come to a resolution.
We should always seek out the appropriate mental health professionals when our kids are displaying signs of excessive stress, anxiety, or depression.
Ideally, parents can begin to identify minor changes — such as openings in the schedule, backing off from quite so many supervised activities, and possibly slightly less hovering on the playground that would start the pendulum returning to the direction of free, imaginative, kid-directed play, one can only hope.
Sections of the article above are an excerpt from an article Dr. Gray’s published: http://tinyurl.com/ngsoufz