The Price of Losing Free Play

pool_party.jpgIn the “Adults Are Ruining Everything” department, it seems that parents, colleges, and even the federal government are passing on their proclivity for busyness and stress to children. How?

By threatening free play and unscheduled time.

A report from the American Academy of Pediatrics that defends the importance of free play says, “Free and unstructured play is healthy and – in fact – essential for helping children reach important social, emotional, and cognitive developmental milestones as well as helping them manage stress and become resilient…Whereas play protects children’s emotional development, a loss of free time in combination with a hurried lifestyle can be a source of stress, anxiety and may even contribute to depression for many children.”

According to the study, parents are afraid to ease up for fear their children will fall behind and worry they will not be acting as proper parents if they do not participate in a hurried lifestyle. The competitive college admissions process encourages overloading one’s schedule with oodles of structured activities. And recent federal education policies have led to decreased levels of recess and physical education in schools.

What this adds up to is more young people growing up to be just like the Adulltitis-stricken doo-doo heads running the show now.

Great, just what we need.

My own mother saw the value in giving us kids free time and often left us to our own devices when it came to amusing ourselves — sans the TV. My brothers and I griped about being bored, but then we made up a game in the backyard, built a fort out of wood scraps my dad had in the basement, or created paper action figures (not dolls!) with crayons and construction paper. Would I have turned out to be so creative if I was pushed into a million activities that would make me stand out on a college application? I doubt it. Did I get accepted and graduate from Harvard? Nope. But I think I’m doing ok.

Here are two things I think we need to take away from all this:

1) Free play is not just beneficial for kids; it’s good for us grown-ups, too. For example, how much unstructured time is built into your typical weekend or vacation? If your answer is, “Not very much,” how’s that working for you? Floating through life on a stress-free cloud? All change starts from within, so before you can overthrow the system that “imposes” all these impossible standards of fast-paced living upon us, you need to overthrow the system of your own beliefs and habits.

2) Listen to your mother. She was fond of saying, “If everyone else decides to jump off a bridge, does that mean you will too?” Just because everyone else around you, from the college admission board to the school system to your next door neighbor is throwing a pool party advocating a lifestyle of non-stop busyness doesn’t mean you have to dive in. Send in your RSVP with a polite “no thanks” and head to the beach instead. You are not controlled by any conspiratorial “outside forces.” The choices you make are your own.

I’ll end this post with a bit of poignant prose from Charles Osgood. You can listen to the whole Osgood Files segment here.

I do recall back in the day
That children used to run and play.

Go out and find some other kid
And have some fun. That’s what they did.

Or sometimes they’d find more than one
And then the group would have some fun.

Maybe with blocks or dolls or ball
Or maybe with no toy at all.

Therefore at very little COST.
Has such play been completely LOST?

Is the pure joy of childhood play
Now obsolete and gone away?

If so that is a crying shame
And the adults who are to blame

Do mean the best I’m sure they do
But I have noticed, haven’t you?

That often an adult proclivity
Towards over organized activity

Has taken over what we do
And what we have our kids do too.

The world has changed, some people say
Our kids can’t just go out and play.

We need someone to supervise them
Someone to lead and organize them.

To do it any other way
Is far too dangerous today.

And in some places that is true
And what’s a parent then to do?

The experts say that playtime though
Is quite important, this they know.

Sometimes what kids may need is yes
Not more parenting but less.

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  1. What a great message you are sharing, and parents indeed need to play as well. I read a research study by Work and Families Institute, they interviewed children and asked what they want most from their working parents. Answer? For parents to be LESS STRESSED. Play for kids and play for parents will make for a happier more productive lifestyle. Love your blog Jason!

  2. I’m with your 100%! Once a week during the school year I was lunch/recess mom for my daughters’ kindergarten class. It was great.

    While recess is where most of the “trouble” happens (kids getting into arguments, not playing together well, etc) it is also when they learn to work things out for themselves.

    I enjoyed giving them some guidance and sending them back to work it out. But, the best days were the ones where I got to play too.

    Leading a big game of Red Light/Green Light or Mrs. Fox or turning the jump rope is my idea of an hour well spent.

    Thanks for another great posting, Jason!

  3. Marilyn — Thanks for the kudos! And what a statement about kids wanting their parents to be LESS STRESSED. I don’t think parents realize how much that rubs off on kids in a negative way. They’re often working two jobs to give their kids a better life, not realizing that in many cases, they’re doing quite the opposite.

    Eliz — Sounds like you are a pretty fun recess mom! We didn’t have too many of those when I was in school. What a great example you are to all the kids!

  4. Here here!! I agree!! I would say this applies to most adults – myself included. I think it’s an area we can all do better in. And if it’s good for kids, it’s a good bet that it’s good for us grown-up types. Cheers to another lesson to learn from those wise children – free play is here to stay!

  5. Sue — Free play rules, especially if you’re a cheapskate like me :)

  6. A timely message–3 of my daughter’s old schools have done away with recess. As in, there is no scheduled recess anymore. After researching, it appears that up to 40% of school districts have also outlawed free play during the school day. I’m outraged, even though we homeschool and my kids are out of public school. We all look sadly at the underused playground when we pass the school to go hiking.

  7. Wow, those numbers are staggering! What a sad commentary. I shudder to think what consequences are being set up by all of this… more Adultitis for sure, I’m afraid.

  8. Beth says:

    The public radio show “Speaking of Faith” has a whole episode about play this week – featuring a doctor who began to realize the very real (and even scientifically measurable!) importance of play. It’s available at this link:


  1. […] The Price of Losing Free Play | A post about the bad things that happen when we don’t let kids have time to play. […]

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