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Less Play Is Keeping Kids From Turning Into Confident Adults

What are your memories of playing as a kid? Most of us will remember exciting games of hide and seek, tag, red rover red rover, others may recall arguing about rules in kickball or stick ball or taking turns at jump rope, or creating imaginary worlds to play in. 

Kid-organized play may have filled much of your free time both at recess and after-school. But do your children have the same opportunities to play after-school as you did? Unfortunately, the answer is most likely not. For more than fifty years, children's free play time especially during recess at school has been continually declining; and it's preventing them from turning into more confident adults.

Playtime is in short supply for most kids today and the lifelong consequences for developing children can be more severe than many parents realize.

The Decline of Play

A recently published article in the American Journal of Play details not only how much kid's playtime has reduced, but how this lack of unstructured play affects their mental and emotional development, leading to the rise of depression, anxiety, problems of attention and self-control.

Peter Gray, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at Boston College, is of the opinion that since 1955 children's free play has been continually diminishing, mainly because parents have since been exerting increasing control over their children's activities. Gray defines "free play" as the play, which is self-directed by kid themselves, rather than being part of some organized activity.

Gray describes this kind of freely-chosen, unstructured and unplanned play as a testing ground for life. It provides critical life experiences without which young children cannot develop into competent and confident adults. Gray's article serves as a wake-up call for adults regarding the effects of lost play. He also believes that lack of childhood free playtime is a huge loss that must be addressed for the betterment of children and society as a whole.

5 Ways Play Benefits Kids

When children take charge of their own playtime, it provides a foundation for their future mental health as adults. Gray mentions five key benefits:

1. Play gives children a chance to develop a connection to their own self-identified and self-guided interests.

As they select the games/activities that make up free play, kids naturally learn to direct themselves and pursue their interests in a way that can sustain them throughout life. Gray mentions that in school, children often work for grades and in adult-directed sports, they work for praise and trophies. But in free play, children do what they want to do, and the learning and psychological growth that results are the byproducts and not the conscious goals of the activity.

2. It is through play that children first learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control, and follow the rules.

As children decide and direct their own free play and solve the problems that come up, they learn to accept restrictions on their own behavior and follow the rules of the game if they want to be successful.

Through free play, children negotiate both their physical and social environments, which helps them gain a sense of mastery over their world. It is this aspect of unstructured play that offers enormous psychological benefits, helping to protect a kid from depression and anxiety.

Children who do not have the opportunity to play freely, grow up, feeling that they are not in control of their own lives. They may grow up feeling like they’re more dependent on luck and on the goodwill and whims of others rather than their own selves and skills. Gray believes that the loss of playtime lessons during childhood prevents a child from exerting control over some of their life circumstances, which can lead to anxiety and depression in the long run.

3. Children learn to handle their emotions including anger and fear during free play.

During free play, children put themselves into socially and physically challenging situations and learn to control their emotions that arise from these annoying scenarios. They role play, swing, slide and climb trees, such activities are fun to the degree that they are moderately frightening, but children know the right dose themselves.

Gary says that adults who did not have the opportunity to experience and cope with moderately challenging emotional situations during free play are more at risk of suffering from anxiety and emotion-provoking situations in adulthood.

4. Play helps children make friends and learn to get along with each other as equals.

Social play at free play is a natural means of making friends and learning to treat one another fairly. Gray believes that learning to get along and cooperate with peers as equals may be the most crucial evolutionary function of human social play. This social play is nature's way of teaching children, even those who are most talented at the game, that they must consider the needs and wishes of others or else they will be excluded. Gray believes that a decline in free play may be the cause of the increased social isolation and loneliness in our culture today. 

5. Play is a source of happiness.

If you ever notice, children are happier when playing with friends than in any other situation. Gray sees the loss of playtime as a double axe: it has not taken away the joys of free play, but children's free time has been replaced with emotionally stressful activities. As a society, we need to understand that to protect our children from danger and to educate them, we must not deprive them of free play, the very activity that makes them feel happy.

The Loss of Play, and Rise of Anxiety and Depression

Gray cited several studies documenting the increase in anxiety and depression since 1950. One study showed that five to eight times as many students reported clinically significant depression or anxiety than students had reported 50 years ago. 

Suicide rates have also quadrupled from 1950 to 2005 for children below 15 years, and doubled for teens and young adults between 15-25 years. Gray believes that the loss of free play is at the core of this alarming observation and that as a society, adults should reassess the role of free play and be sure to introduce it into their children's lives.

When parents and teachers realize the major role that free play can make in the healthy development of a child, they will instinctively want to reassess the priorities ruling their children's lives. Parents can begin to identify small changes in order to bring back free, imaginative, kid-directed play in the lives of their children.

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