Playtime is an essential mark of childhood - wide open days with nothing to do but build forts, ride bikes, play tea party, and tromp through the outdoors alongside neighborhood buddies. However, the free playtime that defined childhood for most of today’s adults is decreasing for today’s children. With the rise of video games, screen time, and organized sports, today’s children just don’t have as much unscheduled time for independent play. According to Pathways, a non-profit organization providing free child development information to parents, “between 1981 and 1997, the amount of time children spent playing dropped by 25 percent. During this same time period, children ages 3-11 lost 12 hours a week of free time and spent more time at school, completing homework, and shopping with parents.” Pediatricians and child psychologists worry this trend may have serious consequence for child development.
Children learn and grow through play, and this does not only apply to preschool aged children. Children of all ages learn life skills such as problem solving, flexible thinking, and creative initiation when they are given time to freely choose activities and experiment with open-ended play. Many experts believe the process of self-discovery should be fostered in children and teens as much as literary and mathematical skills. Unfortunately, there are multiple forces hindering our children from engaging in free play.
Parents have been given the message that children need to be constantly entertained with educational and challenging activities. There is pressure for children to accomplish more at even younger ages, and good parents are left believing that free playtime won’t be enough preparation for success in school and life. A pleathear of enrichment tools have been marketed as beneficial for child development, leaving parents to question the best way for children to spend downtime. Many parents feel a parent-led playtime is a better use of time than shooing a child into the backyard to wander and pretend.
Another barrier to free playtime is the notion that good parents need to constantly supervise their children. Fear of physical danger as well as stranger danger make it difficult for caring parents to step away and give children freedom to play independently. There are quite a few sources showing children today are actually safer than ever. The American Academy of Pediatrics, believes that parents can certainly monitor play for safety, but a large portion of play should be child driven rather than adult directed. Children who have not spent as much time engaged in independent play, may not know what to do with themselves at first. They will look toward a grown-up to initiate activities and provide the fun. The ability to kick start their own creativity and imagination takes practice.
So, how can parents foster and protect this valuable playtime?
Avoid overscheduling - It seems that a requirement of good parenting is to expose our children to a variety of extracurricular activities. There are undoubtedly benefits to children participating in such community activities, but the hurried lifestyle has also been shown to cause stress, anxiety, and even depression for some children. Finding a healthy balance that allows for both organized enrichment activities and free playtime around home is not easy. However, the benefits make such a balance a very worthy goal.
Limit screen time - There is growing research showing the sharp contrast in the benefits of active, creative play versus the possible harmful effects of passive entertainment provided by television, computers, and video games. Turning off screens and putting phones away in a drawer is a quick way to encourage play.
Get outside - Fresh air and the wonder of nature continues to be a great way to spark curiosity, imagination, and physical activity. Rather than decompressing in front of a television screen, get outside to ride bikes, go for a walk, or let your mind wander on a swing.
Freeplay time won’t come naturally in our busy lives. We will have to be intentional, even fight for it at times, but the benefits will be seen throughout our entire families.
Written by Joy Becker, Mentoring Coordinator and Author of 44 & Oxford.