"Since about 1955 ... children's free play has been
continually declining, at least partly because adults have exerted
ever-increasing control over children's activities," says the author
Peter Gray, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology (emeritus) at Boston College.
Gray defines "free play" as play a child undertakes him- or her-self and
which is self-directed and an end in itself, rather than part of some
Gray describes this kind of unstructured, freely-chosen play as a
testing ground for life. It provides critical life experiences without
which young children cannot develop into confident and competent adults.
Gray's article is meant to serve as a wake-up call regarding the
effects of lost play, and he believes that lack of childhood free play
time is a huge loss that must be addressed for the sake of our children
WHO AND WHAT IS INTERFERING WITH CHILDREN'S PLAY?
Parents who hover over and intrude on their
children's play are a big part of the problem, according to Gray. "It
is hard to find groups of children outdoors at all, and, if you do find
them, they are likely to be wearing uniforms and following the
directions of coaches while their parents dutifully watch and cheer."
He cites a study which assessed the way 6- to 8-year-olds spent their
time in 1981 and again in 1997.
The researchers found that compared to 1981, children in 1997 spent
less time in play and had less free time. They spent 18 percent more time at
school, 145 percent more time doing school work, and 168 percent more time shopping
with parents. The researchers found that, including computer play,
children in 1997 spent only about eleven hours per week at play.
In another study, mothers were asked to compare their own memories of their playtime, to their children's current schedules.
Eighty-five percent noted that their children played outdoors less
frequently and for shorter periods of time than they had. The mothers
noted that they restricted their own children's outdoor play because of
safety concerns, a fact echoed in other surveys where parents mentioned
child predators, road traffic, and bullies as reasons for restricting
their children's outdoor play.
Adding to the problem, Gray notes, is our increasing emphasis on
schooling and on adult-directed activities. Preschools and kindergartens
have become more academically-oriented and many schools have even
eliminated recess. It is not that anyone set out to do away with free
play time. But its value has not been recognized. As a result, kids'
free play time has not been protected.
FIVE WAYS PLAY BENEFITS KIDS
When children are in charge of their own play, it
provides a foundation for their future mental health as older children
and adults. Gray mentions five main benefits:
1. Play gives children a chance to find and develop a connection to their own self-identified and self-guided interests.