Remember those carefree days of our youth when some of us roamed the neighborhood until the streetlights came on? Memories of running wild are dear to many of us, yet we often underestimate how much this freedom shaped our character.
We’re seeing our young people face rising levels of anxiety, depression and loneliness. While some people point to technology and social media as part of the problem, the decline in free play also plays a major role.
Children today have far less time to play and roam wild. The length of the academic year has expanded by five weeks between 1950 and 2010. Children today spend considerably more hours in classrooms and on homework — a 2004 study by the University of Michigan estimated an increase of 11.4 hours weekly over three decades. Playtime during recess is dwindling, if not disappearing altogether in many schools. Moreover, extracurricular pursuits like sports are more time-consuming and rigorous than in the past. Consequently, many of today’s youth spend significantly more time under adult supervision than perhaps we did.
So what’s the problem? Additional time spent on academics or sports should improve performance, right? But at what cost?
The Developmental Benefits of Free Play
Having the liberty to wander and engage in imaginative play presents several developmental benefits:
Imagination and creativity: Rescue mission? Zombie outbreak? Running a pretend cafe? That’s just one good afternoon! Free play fosters imagination and creativity through children inventing narratives and scenarios without strict guidelines or predefined outcomes.
Social skills: Watch a group of children playing and you’ll notice they spend a lot of time negotiating the rules. This is how they acquire essential skills in communication, dispute resolution and empathy.
Executive functioning and self-reliance: Unstructured play exposes children to unexpected situations, helping them develop flexibility and adaptability. Children learn skills like planning, organizing and problem-solving, while also improving emotional regulation and independent decision-making.
Risk-taking and courage: Climbing a tree can be a scary experience. However, these experiences habituate and desensitize children to risks and failure, making them more resilient in the future. Research also shows that being apart from mom and dad decreases separation anxiety as they get older.
Physical well-being and confidence: Part of why young animals play is to develop physical skills and coordination. We’re no different. Overcoming physical challenges, like conquering the monkey bars, provides a major boost to self-confidence.
Ever been frustrated by some young adults lacking the ability to manage themselves and execute? It's no surprise when you consider the limited freedom some have had to mature. For most of their lives, some youths have been accustomed to adults directing their every move. So how can we expect those that fall into that category to magically switch into adult mode?
What about the risks, like kidnappers?
Statistics reveal that risks have generally been on the decline. “Free Range Kids” is a book by Lenore Skenazy that states the risk is slim.
“The chances of any one American child being kidnapped and killed by a stranger are almost infinitesimally small: .00007 percent,” Skenazy wrote.
British author Warwick Cairns wrote in his book, “How to Live Dangerously,” that if you wanted your child to be kidnapped and held overnight by a stranger, you would have to keep the child outside, unattended, for about 750,000 years for it to be statistically likely to happen.
How To Bring Back Free Play
Online resources like the “3 Keys to Balancing Safety & Risk in Parenting” provide an overview of how to get started with some simple steps.
The Let Grow Project provides resources for integrating more free play into schools or creating a play club outside of school. Speak with neighbors to help build a supportive community that fosters a sense of collective responsibility.
There are also low-tech devices, such as a basic smartwatch or flip phone, that provide a way to stay connected but don’t provide a screen.