Play is not a luxury. Play is a necessity
Kay Redfield Jamison
Over the last 30 years the amount of time our children spend playing has declined dramatically.
Parents are busier than ever with work and family life, children are busier than ever with all sorts of scheduled activities and schools are busier than ever and focused on tests.
Play is being squeezed out of children’s lives and is becoming a luxury to be slotted into any bits of time left over when all the other activities have been taken care of.
But play is vital for children. It’s what turns little people into happy, healthy, thriving bigger people. When it comes to what’s important for children and what helps kids to succeed, play is right up there with love, learning and sleep.
Why is play so important?
It might look from the outside that a child is just spending a happy afternoon holding a teddy bears’ tea party or building a Lego fort but as well as having fun, they are learning a whole host of important skills that will help them grow and learn.
There is a vast amount of research into the importance of play and the way it benefits children. Play England has analysed the research and summarised the many benefits of play. They found that play:
- increases their self-awareness, self-esteem, and self-respect
- improves and maintains their physical and mental health
- gives them the opportunity to mix with other children
- allows them to increase their confidence through developing new skills
- promotes their imagination, independence and creativity
- offers opportunities for children of all abilities and backgrounds to play together
- provides opportunities for developing social skills and learning
- builds resilience through risk taking and challenge, problem solving, and dealing with new and novel situations
- provides opportunities to learn about their environment and the wider community.
It’s easy to understand how we end up with so many structured activities scheduled for our kids, or how our lives are generally so busy. We want the best for them. We want them to learn as many skills as possible so that they can explore their talents and enjoy themselves.
But when you look at all the benefits of free play, you realise that this is just as, if not more important than learning a new skill in a structured activity. As they’re learning a wide range of life skills that could serve them as they grow up.
Let’s make it a priority for our children too and ensure they have time in their day to happily play, on their own or with each other.
Why are today’s children not playing as much?
It’s a different world today from the one we grew up in. There are more pressures and distractions in today’s scheduled, test-scored, technology-driven world and play is being squeezed out of every day life.
Children today spend less time outdoors than prisoners
In today’s busy world it is no longer as safe for children to play on the streets by themselves.
A recent study asked 2,000 parents of 5-12 year olds about their children’s outdoor play. It revealed the shocking statistic that 74% of children spent less than 60 minutes each day playing outside. That’s less time that prisoners in a maximum-security prison are allowed to spend outside.
A 2 year government study also revealed that “one in nine children had not set foot in a park, forest, beach or any other natural environment for at least a year.”
Fear keeps our kids indoors
The main reasons that parents were fearful about letting their children go outdoors to play were the increase in traffic, crime, possible abduction, as well as a worry about dirt and germs.
It’s completely understandable that parents want to protect their children from coming to any harm but if children are not allowed to play outside then they are missing out.
As well as missing out on getting plenty of fresh air and being out in nature (which is good for their physical and mental health) they are not getting as much opportunity for physical exercise.
Allowing children to play outside and do things like climb trees, build dens and play in rivers also gives them important learning opportunities.
They begin to assess what is risky behaviour or a risky situation and also work out what to do if their risk doesn’t pay off and things go wrong.
In a world of tiger mums and helicopter dads, parents today are more pressured to constantly keep their children occupied.
Much of our children’s week is crammed with scheduled clubs and classes. This means there is hardly any time left over for free play. Children, however, need time to play, on their own or with other children.
One of the crucial things about playing with other children is that it is everyone’s interest in the group to make the game work.
If everyone is not enjoying the game or participating it becomes less fun. Children learn to compromise, to share, to negotiate and to be sensitive to the needs of others.
And by doing so, unaided by adults, they learn far more than when they are following a set of rules in a structured activity, when an adult is on hand to sort out any disagreement or difficulty.
Screens are getting in the way of play
A major battle taking place in homes up and down the land is that of parents trying to wrestle children away from screens and send them off to play.
It’s hard. Computers, tablets and smartphone apps are enticing for children. The games are more sophisticated and more addictive as technology develops.
It’s no surprise that our children are so drawn to them as an easy way to be entertained.
However recent headlines have thrown up a worrying picture of just how alluring screens can be.
Reports about children being so hooked on the game Fortnite that they refused to go to the toilet and preferred to wet themselves rather than take a break from the game, point to an alarming reliance on and even addiction to screens.
The damaging effects of screens
Numerous studies have shown that spending too much time in front of screens is fuelling the childhood obesity crisis and is detrimental to children’s’ cognitive development, psychological health and their quality of sleep.
We can’t escape from the fact that screens are part of today’s world but, as parents, we can make sure we limit screen time and prevent it from harming our children.
Boredom leads to creativity
If we over schedule our kids and fill up all their spare time with homework and timetabled activities then we don’t give them much time to be bored.
That may sound like a good thing (who enjoys being bored?) but being bored actually allows children to be creative and imaginative as they are forced to find ways to entertain themselves.
Countless studies have shown that we are more creative when we’re bored, and the same goes for our kids.
When children are bored they start to daydream and daydreaming sparks creative thoughts and the imagination.
We all need empty hours in our lives or we will have no time to create or dream.
Robert Coles – Contemporary American child psychologist
No place for play in the classroom
It’s not just at home but at school that there is less chance for children to play.
In recent years an ‘earlier is better’ approach has been adopted, with an emphasis upon introducing young children at the earliest possible stage to the formal skills of literacy and numeracy.
Even in the early years there is more pressure and emphasis placed on testing and attainment, which means play and creativity is being squeezed out of the school day.
Let kids be kids
With play being sidelined out of our children’s school and home lives, it’s more important than ever before to take a step back and let kids be kids.
Giving them time and space and freedom to play will improve their physical and mental wellbeing.
It will help them develop so many vital skills to help them grow and learn and build the confidence and resilience to take on all life throws at them.
Let them grow. Let them be little. Let them play.
Read also about why a bit of Dirt is actually GOOD for our kids
- “The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescents”, Peter Gray
- “Why play is important”, Play England
- “Three quarters of UK children spend less time outdoors than prison inmates”, The Guardian
- “Girl, nine, is in rehab after becoming so addicted to Fortnite video game she ‘wet herself to continue playing and hit her father in the face when he tried to take away her XBox”, The Guardian
- “How Too Much Screen Time Affects Kids’ Bodies And Brains”, Alice G Walton for Forbes
- “Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment pilot study: visits to the natural environment by children”, Official Statistics, gov.uk