In her online Washington Post article “The Decline of Play in Preschoolers — and the Rise in Sensory Issues,” pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom recalls her own experience with her oldest daughter’s early childhood years:
“I remember wanting to desperately enrich her life in any way possible — to give her an edge before she even got to formal schooling. I put her in a preschool that was academic in nature — the focus on pre-reading, writing, and math skills. At home, I bought her special puzzles, set up organized play dates with children her age, read to her every night, signed her up for music lessons, put her in dance, and drove her to local museums. My friends and I even did ‘enrichment classes’ with our kids to practice sorting, coloring, counting, numbers, letters, and yes … even to practice sitting! We thought this would help prepare them for kindergarten.
Like many other American parents, I had an obsession: academic success for my child. Only, I was going about it completely wrong. Yes, my daughter would later go on to test above average with her academic skills, but she was missing important life skills. Skills that should have been in place and nurtured during the preschool years.”
All Work and No Play…
As we take a closer look at this example, we find one thing missing: play — or to be more specific — unguided, child-led play that more and more researchers are asserting is not just good, but necessary for a child’s healthy development. Studies show that over the years, this notion of play as an integral part of a child’s upbringing has declined significantly, giving way to activities thought to be more useful or productive. Of the societal trends acting as accomplices to the decay of free play, increased parental control, media, and technology are leading the charge.
David Elkind, Ph.D., in his book The Power of Play, writes, “As well-informed parents and grandparents, we are concerned about giving our children and grandchildren intellectual stimulation as well as social experience and extracurricular opportunities. This angst, together with changes in the toys and the media available to children, has had a profound effect on children’s play. Parental angst leads to the overprotection, overscheduling, and overprogramming of contemporary children.”
Data shows that, in addition to over-structuring their children’s free time, parents have moved away from the idea of free outdoor play due to growing safety concerns and fear of crime. This fear, while understandable, is ultimately unwarranted, writes Peter Gray, Ph.D., research professor of psychology at Boston College, in his article “The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescents.”
Of the societal trends acting as accomplices to the decay of free play, increased parental control, media, and technology are leading the charge.
“Parents today have more fears about allowing their children to play outdoors than parents in decades past, and media coverage certainly plays a role in these fears. Today, if a stranger abducts, molests, or murders a child anywhere in the developed world, the crime receives extensive and repeated news coverage. In truth, the rate of such cases is small and has declined, at least since the early 1990s in the United States.”
Nonetheless, this widespread fear and skepticism often deters the encouragement of free outdoor play. And this reality, coupled with the rise of technology, is prompting more kids to stay inside, where their whereabouts and safety can be monitored, and where television, video games, and internet activities are increasingly running the show.
…Makes Jack a Dull Boy
As childhood experiences move increasingly further from free play, serious repercussions are ensuing — and it turns out dullness is just the tip of the iceberg. In the case of Hanscom’s daughter, this focus on structure and academic success not only resulted in a lack of basic social skills, such as sharing or taking turns, but in an inability to regulate emotions, deal with everyday stressors, or even play alone. This phenomenon, which Hanscom went on to affirm was far from isolated to her daughter, often results in unwarranted frustration, anxiety, and tears.
“We’re structuring children’s time so much that we’re taking necessary skills away from them,” said Susan Rogers, associate professor and academic director of PLNU’s Early Childhood Learning Center. “We’re limiting their critical thinking, creativity, self-expression, and confidence. Consequently, as they get older, they don’t have the ability to dig deep, manage stress, or problem-solve. We need to give them experiences to learn how to deal with conflict and to move away from being reliant on adults, and they learn these skills in play.”
Rogers, who has spent her career studying and teaching child development, concurs that play is not only good, but vital, pointing back to renowned cognitive psychologists Jean Piaget’s and Lev Vygotsky’s theories on play. These theories assert that children are actually at their highest cognitive levels while playing and use play to organize and make sense of the world around them, leading Piaget to declare that, “It is through game playing, that is, through the give-and- take of negotiating plans, settling disagreements, making and enforcing rules, and keeping and making promises that children come to understand the social rules which make cooperation with others possible.”
A prime example of this, Rogers says, is when children engage in dramatic play. As they assign roles and mimic what they’ve observed in their own environment, children are actually organizing and making sense of the world around them, constructing their own knowledge through discovery. Moreover, it is through this role-play that children learn to accept restrictions and develop self-control.
“Vygotsky pointed out that children’s strong desires to play and to keep the game going lead them to accept restrictions on their behavior that they would not accept in real life, and this is how they acquire the capacities for self-control that are so crucial to social existence,” writes Gray. “They learn in play that self-control itself is a source of pleasure.”
“In the absence of such play, children fail to acquire the social and emotional skills that are essential for healthy psychological development.”
—PETER GRAY, PH.D.
Other research on the topic of play supports these claims, showing that play, or the lack thereof, impacts all areas of child development — cognitive, social, emotional, and even physical. Gray summarizes this by outlining the five main functions of play as helping children develop interests and competencies, learn to make decisions and solve problems, regulate emotions, make friends, and experience joy. Consequently, as the presence of play declines, so does a child’s advancement in these areas.
“Play, especially social play with other children, serves a variety of developmental functions, all of which promote children’s mental health,” Gray writes. “In the absence of such play, children fail to acquire the social and emotional skills that are essential for healthy psychological development.”
And while there may be less information available on the direct correlation between play and physical development, there is research nonetheless, much of it pointing to an overall decline in health and fitness and a rise in obesity as play, especially free outdoor play, is limited, and sedentary activities are increased. Through her research, Hanscom also found that basic coordination is being affected, with preschool teachers confirming a rise in clumsy behavior among their students, such as them running into things or falling out of their chairs, and a lessened ability to pay attention to directions.
These effects, which start so young, won’t lessen with age, but will likely have impacts well into adulthood. In a sort of snowball effect, as a child grows, so will the severity of their manifestations. In fact, researchers, such as Gray, are connecting decreased play to a rise in psychopathologies, such as depression, anxiety, narcissism, and suicide among children, adolescents, and young adults. One study, as referenced by Gray in his article, shows that anxiety and depression among children and college students have increased significantly and steadily since the 1950s, with suicide rates quadrupling for those under 15 and more than doubling for those between the ages of 15 and 24. This reality, though grave, Gray says is not surprising in light of societal trends.
“Somehow, as a society, we have come to the conclusion that to protect children from danger and to educate them, we must deprive them of the very activity that makes them happiest and place them for ever more hours in settings where they are more or less continually directed and evaluated by adults, settings almost designed to produce anxiety and depression,” he writes.
Bringing Back Play
While continuing on this trajectory clearly gives great cause for concern, Gray and Rogers say there is hope to turn these patterns around. After studying the link of depression and anxiety to a lessened sense of personal control, Gray asserts that play, which is by nature directed and controlled by those playing, is a natural remedy.
According to Rogers, this notion of bringing back play all starts at home. Motivated by her own research and experiences as a parent, Rogers is eager to equip other parents and guardians with information to bring back the invaluable presence of play into their children’s lives. She suggests beginning this journey from the ground up — literally.
“Research shows that the best way to build trust is to get on the floor with your child, step into their world, and let them take the lead,” she said. “This type of bonding between an adult and child is truly magical and is a huge foundation for bonding later on in adolescence.”
While getting on a child’s level physically is vital, the type of interaction that happens there is equally important. Rather than guiding or correcting them as they try to make sense of their world, Rogers suggests asking questions, indulging their ideas, and using the experience as an opportunity to understand how they’re processing what they observe. Working to provide this type of environment can help foster their confidence and creativity. Likewise, giving them time and space to interact solely with other children, free from adult interference, can help them learn to navigate social situations and problem-solve.
In addition to following their lead and encouraging their autonomy, the key is equipping children with the right tools to spur creativity and critical thinking. Contrary to popular belief, this often doesn’t equate to the technologically-advanced toys found on today’s shelves. Rather, Rogers suggests going a bit “old school” and letting the toys be child-powered.
“There is nothing better for young children than playing with plain wooden blocks,” she said. “Toys today are so limiting; they’re designed to be specific things. What really benefits children is having toys that have endless possibilities, toys that grow with them and allow them to follow wherever their imaginations lead them.”
Beyond the kind of toys provided, there is consideration on the amount of toys provided. With advertising and consumerism consistently trending upward, children today have more toys than ever before. And while the media contends this as a positive, a sign of status even, researchers are shedding light on the threats this toy abundance breeds.
“Toy play is one of the ways in which children nurture their disposition for imagination and fantasy,” writes Elkind. “Like other human potentials, imagination and fantasy can only be fully developed through practice. Yet the sheer number of toys owned by contemporary children weakens the power of playthings to engage children in dramatic thinking.”
Not only free and widely accessible, nature is also a breeding ground for creativity and discovery.
One recommended antidote to the constant accumulation of playthings is rediscovering the original playground. Not only free and widely accessible, nature is also a breeding ground for creativity and discovery.
“…children desperately need to have a multitude of whole-body sensory experiences on a daily basis in order to develop strong bodies and minds,” writes Hanscom. “This is best done outside where the senses are fully ignited and young bodies are challenged by the uneven and unpredictable, ever-changing terrain.”
Author and Audubon Society Medal recipient Richard Louv, in his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, takes this thought even further, pointing to nature as a resource not only for sensory development, but also spiritual development. “Nature — the sublime, the harsh, and the beautiful — offers something that the street or gated community or computer game cannot,” he writes. “Nature presents the young with something so much greater than they are; it offers an environment where they can easily contemplate infinity and eternity.”
In this way, as creation is explored, so is the Creator. By prompting walks and talks in nature, parents can not only witness firsthand the excitement of new discovery within their children, but also plant seeds for rich spiritual encounters and an appreciation for the complexity and beauty of the world around them.
“As we spend time to explore nature with children, we can help them uncover its beauty and expose them to the concept of God as Creator,” said Rogers. “We get to help them discover not only the wonder of nature, but also the wonder of God, and that will be foundational as they grow.”