The Critical Importance of Play

It’s summer! School is out, and from the last bell kids have ten whole weeks of active summer fun ahead of them!

Or do they? In the 2015 ParticipACTION report, Canadian kids received a D- for the third year in a row. This means that most kids do not meet the healthy requirement for physical activity.

According to the report, the biggest reason is that parents are hesitant to allow kids to partake in “free play”.

Free play is what psychologist Dr. Peter Grey, a researcher on the evolutionary function of play, calls play that is completely self-directed by the child, usually outdoors. You can find his TED talk here, and while what follows is taken from his presentation, I highly recommend you watch it.

Play is More Than You Think

Play isn’t just messing around. It’s not just being frivolous or irresponsible. Play is present in the young of all mammals, and the bigger the brain in a species, the more that species will play. We big-brained humans play the most.

But our play has been declining for decades. School in the 1950’s was five weeks shorter than it is now, and we had two thirty minute recesses and a full hour lunch. Homework in elementary school was almost non-existent, and there was little in high school. Summers were far more “free-range” with less organized sports and camps. Play was self-directed with minimal adult intervention.

Not so now, and that’s a problem. According to Dr. Grey, play is necessary to maintain fit bodies, and learn physical and social skills. Riskier play helps children learn to face fear and be brave, and perhaps more importantly, allows them to learn to assess risk properly.

Play is where children learn that they are in control of their own lives. It’s where they experience joy, learn to get along with others, and develop creativity and innovation. It’s how we, as a species, learn the critical skills of working together. Play, in other words, is serious business.

School is Not Play

Over the years, we’ve adopted an increasingly “schoolish” view of human development, assuming that an adult-delivered, structured education is the best, and all that’s required. To make things worse, we’ve become irrationally afraid of the dangers in the outside world. And the more we keep our kids indoors, the less “fun” the outdoors becomes—for the kid who does venture outside, there is simple less play to be had.

The result? Over the last 50-60 years, as play has been declining, problems have been rising. Depression and anxiety in kids have risen, as has suicide. Narcissism has increased, while the sense of control kids have in their life has declined.

To drive that home, here are a couple of compelling examples: Kids are more depressed today than they were during the Great Depression, and more anxious than they were during the Cold War. 

Is that all because of play? No one knows for sure, but Grey argues that the problems we’re seeing in kids are exactly what we’d expect, based on lab studies of other mammals, if you take away play.

What can you do?

Summer’s here, and it’s prime play time. So what do you do? Here are a few tips.

  • Recognize it the value of play, and make it a daily priority.
  • Get to know your neighbors so that can feel your neighborhood is a safe place.
  • Force your kids off screens and outdoors.
  • Be brave enough to stand up against more school. Kids might need better school, but they don’t need more.

Summer goes so fast. Don’t forget the value of play for your kids!