One of the greatest threats to children in the 21st century is the lack of free play. Children’s days are filled with preschool/school, lessons, activities, and device use.
Unstructured play is defined as a category of play in which there is no objective or adult instruction (young children need adult supervision during free play). 1 Young children need at least an hour each day of open-ended play to allow their ideas to come to fruition. It is important to the development of their executive function. 2 Harvard University describes the executive function of our brains as “mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.” 3
Unstructured play can take place outside or inside. Obviously, outside free play promotes a love for nature. It can be alone or with peers or siblings.
Children today spend only 4 hours playing outside a week compared to their parents average of 8.2 hours.
In addition to school, homework, and extracurricular sports and activities, children have replaced unstructured free time with screen time. According to a UK study, screen time has increased from 3 hours a day in the 1990s to 6.5 hours in 2015. 4 They are getting less sleep too!
Patagonia, a company that provides on site childcare that understand the importance of play, explains the why unstructured play is crucial:
Unstructured play, where children get messy and wild, where the unpredictability of nature is available to surprise and delight, is the pinnacle of play. In a world that often expects children to put aside “childish ways” in favor of “preparing” for the future, we stand for the right of children to play, because we know that play is how children prepare for the future. We are not alone in this belief. Experts of all stripes have stated that play is an essential part of a healthy childhood. According to pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom, if children don’t get enough unstructured playtime, “They are more likely to be clumsy, have difficulty paying attention, trouble controlling their emotions, utilize poor problem-solving methods, and demonstrate difficulties with social interactions.”Why is Unstructured Play Crucial?
Children Have a Right to Unstructured Play
Our children are suffering from modern life. They under pressures not appropriate for their development. How can we make unstructured play a normal part of childhood again?
Peter Gray eloquently writes in Aeon how childhood has changed and the consequence to our kids:
For more than 50 years now, we in the United States have been gradually reducing children’s opportunities to play, and the same is true in many other countries. In his book Children at Play: An American History (2007), Howard Chudacoff refers to the first half of the 20th century as the ‘golden age’ of children’s free play. By about 1900, the need for child labour had declined, so children had a good deal of free time. But then, beginning around 1960 or a little before, adults began chipping away at that freedom by increasing the time that children had to spend at schoolwork and, even more significantly, by reducing children’s freedom to play on their own, even when they were out of school and not doing homework. Adult-directed sports for children began to replace ‘pickup’ games; adult-directed classes out of school began to replace hobbies; and parents’ fears led them, ever more, to forbid children from going out to play with other kids, away from home, unsupervised. There are lots of reasons for these changes but the effect, over the decades, has been a continuous and ultimately dramatic decline in children’s opportunities to play and explore in their own chosen ways.
Over the same decades that children’s play has been declining, childhood mental disorders have been increasing. It’s not just that we’re seeing disorders that we overlooked before. Clinical questionnaires aimed at assessing anxiety and depression, for example, have been given in unchanged form to normative groups of schoolchildren in the US ever since the 1950s. Analyses of the results reveal a continuous, essentially linear, increase in anxiety and depression in young people over the decades, such that the rates of what today would be diagnosed as generalised anxiety disorder and major depression are five to eight 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.
The decline in opportunity to play has also been accompanied by a decline 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 of 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. School fosters competition, not co-operation; and children there are not free to quit when others fail to respect their needs and wishes.The play deficit
One very important consequence Gray points out from the lack of unstructured play is its
Most children experience 15 minutes of unstructured play at recess time. What happens when another child taunts, teases or gets angry? They run to the adult on recess duty for help or they tell the teacher when recess is over. We have taught them to do this. It’s an exhausting part of education.
Children also experience anger in their play. Anger can arise from an accidental or deliberate push, or a tease, or from failure to get one’s way in a dispute. But children who want to continue playing know they have to control that anger, use it constructively in self-assertion, and not lash out. Tantrums might work with parents, but they never work with playmates. There is evidence that the young of other species also learn to regulate their anger and aggressiveness through social play.
In school, and in other settings where adults are in charge, they make decisions for children and solve children’s problems. In play, children make their own decisions and solve their own problems. In adult-directed settings, children are weak and vulnerable. In play, they are strong and powerful. The play world is the child’s practice world for being an adult. We think of play as childish, but to the child, play is the experience of being like an adult: being self-controlled and responsible. To the degree that we take away play, we deprive children of the ability to practise adulthood, and we create people who will go through life with a sense of dependence and victimisation, a sense that there is some authority out there who is supposed to tell them what to do and solve their problems. That is not a healthy way to live.The play deficit
People complain that children today grow up into adults that feel entitled. Could all of this stem from not being allowed to play freely? Could lack of self-regulation and personal problem-solving be a result of an overstructured childhood?
Combined with modern parenting techniques, the lack of unstructured play is of grave concern. Free play time is needed from the toddler to the teen years.