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The Loss of Free Undirected Play in Childhood Has Big Impact

Maddie and Anthony Sackett on a recent camping trip enjoying the freedom found in being children in the great outdoors.

As wonderful as the cherished traditions and programmatic aspects of a camp may be, what we teach campers may not be the most important part of their summer experience. The most crucial and unexpected moments of a summer may be when children are left alone to engage in free, undirected play. For many campers, the experience of playing outside “alone” or with a group of friends may be a truly new and joyful one. The loss of time for free, undirected play in everyday life is one of the saddest facts of modern childhood.

 As a school consultant, I have watched the growing phenomenon of the over-scheduled child, particularly in affluent suburbs, and in independent and international schools. As a camp consultant, I have observed how many campers’ parents monitor them extremely closely; one might say microscopically. Indeed, Ron Taffel, a psychologist in New York, reports that much of modern parenting involves meticulous time management of a child’s packed schedule. This is a source of sadness for me, and for many people who care about children. Every thoughtful educator and parent has worried that there is something missing in the lives of today’s children.

Some conclude that what is missing is play or a work/play balance. More specifically, though, what is really missing is a certain kind of play that should exist in childhood: free, undirected play. We are doing great things for children in many ways, but we are not leaving them alone enough.

Researchers tell us that over the past two decades, children in the United States have lost nine to twelve hours of free play per week. Over the past decade, forty percent of elementary schools in the U.S. have eliminated recess, leaving children with less than a twenty-minute break (for lunch) in a six-hour school day. At school, we have replaced recess time with increased seat time as preparation for state tests; at home, parents have replaced free play time with organized sports, art, dance, and, of course, tutoring.

Free, undirected play used to be valued as a central, indeed, the defining activity of childhood, for good reason. Jaak Panskeep, play researcher at Washington State University, calls play the “signature mammalian behavior.” According to David Elkind it is a child’s “ . . . inborn disposition for learning, curiosity, imagination, and fantasy.” In 2007, The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a report declaring that, “It is through play that children at a very early age engage and interact with the world they can master, conquering their fears while practicing adult roles.” Play makes children creative and strong; play reassures children that they are okay in the world.

What happened to play time? A lot of free time has simply disappeared because American children spend so much time at computer screens or in the car commuting to school and after-school activities. Many parents worry about their children’s safety if left alone to play in the neighborhood. Others feel their children must be constantly engaged in productive activity to succeed in a competitive, globalized economy.

But our children are paying the price for the loss of time for free play. We see it in obesity; high stress levels; rapidly increasing diagnosis of ADHD, depression, and emotional fragility; social incompetence; excessive dependence on adults, and the loss of a relationship with nature. While research indicating links between loss of free play time and obesity and high stress might be considered obvious, many researchers also have suggested that the increase in ADHD is a direct result of reduced play time. Some researchers believe that children may be missing a crucial modulator of nerve cell development (BDNF, brain-derived neurotrophic factor) which is generated by vigorous exercise and learning.

We don’t need to wait for more research to confirm that the loss of free, undirected play is a significant problem in contemporary childhood. Parents, educators, camp counselors, and childcare workers need to protect the time they give children to play freely; they need to increase that time if possible. The most important and unexpected thing we can do for our children — at home or at camp — is to give them time for free play, time to confront their own “boredom,” learn how to entertain themselves with a friend, and organize a game with their peers.

In the end, you can’t teach children to play alone; you have to let them play alone. Many parents are too frightened to do so, and schools cannot find the time to do so. It may be that camp is the place where grown-ups can make nonscheduled time and free, undirected play a priority. I hope so. Our children’s imagination, spontaneity, leadership skills, and happiness depend on it.

Michael Thompson is a psychologist, author and camp consultant.  His most recent book is It’s a Boy: Your Son’s Development from Birth to Eighteen.

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