Heather Sanders

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March 2013



Play is Serious Stuff

Written by , Posted in Everything Else, Kids and Parenting


This week is Spring Break. The kids are doing what they want to do from the time they roll out of bed until they literally cannot keep their eyes open any longer. I did not make any grandiose plans for their Spring Break – it is their vacation; they can decide what they want to do without my help. If they need my help to accomplish their plans, they will let me know.

I like this arrangement. As a homeschooling parent, this is my Spring Break too, and I certainly do not have any difficulty deciding what I want to do, which is primarily to rest, read and write.

Kids Need Free Play

As part of my reading, I came across a Boston Globe post I bookmarked some time ago about how kids seriously need free play. As is often the case, that post led me to another article, or in this case, a news release, about the lack of free play among children.

In this collection of essays, Peter Gray, a psychologist at Boston College, defines free play as an “activity that is freely chosen and directed by the participants and undertaken for its own sake.” In other words, any adult-directed activity is NOT free play.

Today’s parents spend more time managing, scripting and restricting their kids’ play time than previous generations. Since evidence shows free play is essential for the mental health, as well as the development of critical abilities children will need later in life, it should not surprise anyone that children’s anxiety and depression increases as the amount of time spent in free play declines.

Parents Restrict Play Out of Fear

Parents seem to control every vestige of their childrens’ free time now, from play dates to birthday parties. In my community, children cannot be simply dropped off at birthday parties, but instead, the entire family must attend. Why? Not only does this create a financial burden on the family who wants to throw a party, but cannot afford to feed 10 or 12 families, but it is also ridiculous. The parents who want to spend two hours of their Saturday afternoon ensuring their child remains safe at their friend’s birthday party, are the same parents who hover over their children’s every action under the guise of “love” – this is overprotectiveness, and it is far from an act of love.

I have three kids and partially understand why 82 percent of mothers admitted they fearfully restricted their children’s outdoor play due to safety concerns. Lenore Skenazy’s site, Free-Range Kids, utilizes every opportunity to debunk these fears with evidence that clearly shows that “Today we are back to the crime level of 1970, according to the Dept. of Justice statistics. So – unbelievable as it seems – if you were playing outside as a kid in the ’70s or 80s, your kids are actually SAFER outside than you were!”

Unstructured Play is Crucial to Children’s Development

As a child who spent most days playing outside with eleven other children in my neighborhood, I can attest to the amount of personal growth that comes from unstructured play with peers of multiple ages. The only restrictions were the boundaries parents set for us. Some of us could ride bikes to the park; others of us could venture to the ditch, and all of us knew to come in at dark (or when the street lights came on). It was not uncommon to find a passel of kids sitting on the curb in front of the Martin’s yard, which coincidentally, contained the streetlight that came on last every single night.

Neighborhood parents taught the basics: travel with a buddy when possible, be aware of traffic, refuse to get in cars with strangers, and call home when playing inside a friend’s home (this was to avoid getting out of earshot of a parent’s call).

In other words, kids learned how to handle situations they might come across while exploring their little corner of the world instead of believing there was any reason to fear what was in the world.

Though part of a family, I want my kids to know they are also independent beings and fully responsible for their actions. This is one reason why it delights me when Emelie takes off on a two hour afternoon adventure. With her backpack taunt with a journal, writing and painting utensils, polaroid camera, water bottle and a snack, she takes long walks, documenting them with photos and water colors. At home, she is part of a whole, but on her walks, she pursues her own interests, takes her time, listens to her tunes, and enjoys the moment for all its glory.

It made me smile when Kenny and his cousin Olivia spent hours creating an imaginary world in the woods behind the house, pretending to be part of the Lewis and Clarke expedition they studied in American History this year.

And, it thoroughly impressed me when Emelie and Meredith lugged a dishwasher they found in the lake over the rocky shore, up one side of the dam, down the other, and along a gravel drive for a good quarter-mile to the road. There they called their daddy from Emelie’s cell phone to ask him to come see a catfish they caught in the lake (the catfish was still alive IN the abandoned dishwasher). Imagine his surprise when he pulled up to two young girls proudly resting up against a dishwasher.

“Where’s the catfish?” he asked.
“In the dishwasher, where else?” they replied laughing.

Play is serious stuff.

Children need to play more than they need to be micromanaged, and evidence suggests that free play (especially outside) is necessary if we want them to grow into psychologically healthy and emotionally competent adults.

Heather Sanders


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