The day before Thanksgiving, I was busily preparing for the holiday while my son, daughter, and my son’s friend lounged on the couch in an uncommonly quiet manner. On checking on them, I discovered that they were all absorbed in their own electronic devices. In an effort to get them outside, I urged them to go out and play in the good weather. At first, they were reluctant, but eventually, they spent two hours happily playing a makeshift game of football in our yard. It seemed as though they had forgotten how much they enjoyed unstructured outdoor activities.
Peter Gray, Ph.D., a research professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, and author of the book “Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life,” says that it’s not surprising that kids nowadays have less free time compared to the past. According to Gray, we have been taking away more and more of kids’ free time each decade since the mid-1960s. The longer school year and day, as well as the removal of recess, and the belief that children are in danger if not constantly watched over, all contribute to kids being play-deprived. Gray suggests that kids need at least five to six hours of free time each day to develop important skills, such as independence, responsibility, problem-solving, and decision-making. Play is nature’s way of ensuring that children practice these skills and learn from them during childhood.
Down Time Is Critical
In reality, many children, including my own, do not have much unscheduled playtime every day. The hours after school are often filled with homework or planned activities, and during the school day, there is hardly any downtime. Last year, my daughter’s second-grade teacher would often allow her class extra time outside on sunny days – a fact that my daughter eagerly shared with me, and one that I was delighted to hear about. I asked her former teacher, René Blume-Meagher, how she balanced her desire to allow her students to have the freedom to explore and play with the need to prevent learning loss. “If the teaching quality is high, there is enough time for everything,” she says. “While they are playing, I engage in conversations with my students that would not typically occur during instruction or assignments. I can better understand their learning styles and tap into their interests and strengths.”
Regrettably, recess, which has numerous benefits, is not given much importance in schools throughout the nation. According to an informal survey conducted via Facebook among my friends who are parents, their children typically receive 15 to 30 minutes of recess, if it is even provided at all. Nonetheless, it was encouraging to learn that classic games such as kickball and Four Square are still popular. Heather Wiese, a resident of Dexter, Michigan, remarked that “our school system only provides recess up to the sixth grade, and both the children and teachers value this time as they are aware that it will come to an end. It is unfortunate that it is discontinued as the children truly require this time.”
Catherine Ramstetter, Ph.D., a member of the Global Recess Alliance, which is committed to preserving recess, and a co-author of The American Academy of Pediatrics Policy on Recess, suggests that eliminating recess to increase instructional time is not helpful. According to her, if we do not allow our brains to take a break, we will not be able to absorb new information. She compares it to pouring water into a cup that is already overflowing.
Encourage Play Autonomy
In today’s world, where productivity is highly valued, children are at risk of play deprivation, which can lead to depression and anxiety. To help children avoid this condition, parents can encourage them to play without adult interference, whether it be outdoors, indoors, or online. According to Gray, when children play with other kids, they learn to negotiate and collaborate in figuring out activities that interest them. Similarly, playing alone allows children to discover their personal interests and strengths, which can serve as a foundation for their future career. Allowing children to play on their own can also spare parents from playing Candy Land yet again.
Although it can be tempting to be involved in every aspect of our children’s lives, it is important to give them unsupervised playtime (in a secure environment) which allows them to have privacy. As children grow older, this becomes even more crucial. Ramstetter suggests that parents should let their children be independent with their friends, as it doesn’t mean they are neglecting their role as a parent, but rather allowing space for their children to develop into adults.
According to Gray, parents need not worry if their children prefer playing video games over outdoor activities. Video games can be intellectually stimulating and contribute to the development of cognitive abilities such as quick thinking, making accurate decisions, and holding multiple pieces of information in the mind simultaneously, which are measured in IQ tests. Additionally, video games can facilitate social interaction among children and be an effective way to bring kids of different ages together, as observed by Jeana Kraft, a mother from Wausau, Wisconsin, who appreciated how Madden ’23 united her three kids. The writer also notes that their own 11 and 8-year-old children often play Fortnite together, with friends from both age groups.
Ramstetter suggests that parents inquire about their children’s recess periods, including their participation, activities, and whether they ever get punished by losing recess time. According to Ramstetter, parents can play a powerful role in advocating for recess policies. For instance, when my daughter was deprived of her recess time for talking during art class, I objected to this practice and the school no longer enforces it.
Although I prioritize outdoor activities for my children, I agree with Gray’s suggestion to allow them to play whatever and however they want. Gray asserts that children gain independence through playing without adult supervision, and I believe that granting them this freedom is one of the most valuable gifts I can provide.