Summer is in full swing with schools dismissed across the globe. You’d expect to walk outside and see kids riding bikes, playing with friends and embarking on adventures. Yet, there’s silence. Turns out, many kids aren’t partaking in traditional play anymore. Play is so important it was even declared a basic human right by the United Nations (UN) So why aren’t more kids doing it?
The Culprits Behind Lack of Play
We’re quick to blame electronics for the perceived decline, assuming kids are shut up indoors glued to their various screens, playing video games or watching mindless YouTube videos. But it’s not just screens causing a decrease in playtime for kids.
Overscheduling of organized activities also plays a role in the decline. Organized sports, music lessons and myriad extra-curriculars parents and guidance counselors feel are necessary for college acceptance take up a huge chunk of time and energy that would otherwise be used in play.
In a study commissioned by Unilever, researchers at Edelman Intelligence found the majority of children, 74%, spend less than one hour per day outdoors and 10% of respondents said they never play outside.
What’s the big deal?
By engaging in unstructured, free play regularly and often, kids learn vital problem-solving and creative-thinking skills.
“Play is integral to development in children,” Michael Barnett, CEO and co-founder of Romp n’ Roll play-based educational centers tells Parentology. “Quite simply, play is the foundation for learning and growth. Play is how children socialize, begin to understand the world around them, and develop critical problem solving skills to figure out how things work. The importance of play in early childhood can’t be overstated.”
Studies have shown play is important to healthy brain development and, in animal models, juveniles who are not allowed to interact with other juveniles have dramatically different brain structure than those who interact or play with juveniles regularly.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), “Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, physical, cognitive, and emotional strength.”
The EQ of Play
Not only is play important to cognitive development, but to emotional development as well. Play helps children to develop emotional maturity by allowing them space for “conquering their fears while practicing adult roles, sometimes in conjunction with other children or adult caregivers. As they master their world, play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence and the resiliency they will need to face future challenges.”
There’s also been an uptick in children reporting anxiety, depression, perfectionism, and other mental health concerns. The correlation between increased mental illness in children and decreased play time, over-scheduling and more sedentary lifestyles may also affect the child’s ability to transition effectively to college, resulting in depression, hopelessness, and suicidal ideation at higher rates than in previous generations.
The takeaway here is simple to understand, if not simple to achieve. Provide opportunities for play. Unstructured, unimpeded, free-play for kids of all ages. Fight the urge and the idea that young children should be exposed to every single enrichment opportunity or enrolled in every class or extra-curricular, limit screen time according to AAP recommendations, and advocate instead for play. Encourage children to explore their environments with open-ended toys that allow for experimentation and, when safe and appropriate, use the magic words of previous generations, “Go outside and play!”
Michael Barnett, CEO/Co-Founder Romp n’ Roll
IPA: UN Convention of the Rights of Children
American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP): The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds
NCBI: Mounting Student Depression Taxing Campus and Mental Health Services
AAP: Media and Children Communication Kit