Less Play Time Means More Troubled Kids

November 12, 2012

Less Play Time Means More Troubled Kids

Researchers in the U.S. have identified a disturbing trend in childhood behaviors. It has been found that children are not getting ‘out to play’ enough. Compared to fifty years ago children are being kept in much more and it has been found that parents today have much less time to play with their children.

Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology at Boston College sums things up very succinctly when he says, “Into the 1950s, children were free to play a good part of their childhood. If you stayed in your house around your mom, she’d say ‘go out and play.’ The natural place for a kid was outside”. He then relates to today’s situation and explains, “Today, it’s quite the opposite. Parents are not allowing kids the freedom to play. And even if they do, there are no other kids out there to play with, or the mother may have such restrictions on the child, such as ‘you can’t go out of the yard’ that the kids don’t want to stay out there”.

Because of this fundamental change in behavior, researchers believe that the trend could negatively impact the children’s development and affect their mental health. The old style games like hide and seek or just running around had both health and development positives but today with parents being extra observant and vigilant these activities are now becoming very rare.

Playing with other children allows youngsters to develop skills which will be useful in later life. When playing games they can use their imagination but they also learn negotiation skills and ensure that those around them are ‘playing fair’. This greatly enhances their decision making and problem solving attributes and leads to greater self control and self esteem.

A child learns quickly that any excessively emotional response soon stops working. They also learn that they cannot always have things their own way, they have to share and meet others half way. They learn how to change behavior to a socially acceptable standard and they learn the benefits of this by having friends to play with and having fun. By interacting positively they learn that they remain in the group.

Gray explains that children playing freely are still learning. He says, “They are acquiring the basic competencies we ultimately need to become adults”. Gray, as well as being a professor is also the author of two studies recently released in the American Journal of Play.

Gray further highlights that children’s free play has decreased significantly since the mid 1950s. He points out that adults have encroached on the children’s area of free play, that is the area which the children control and direct. He believes that this negatively affects the children’s mental health. He also says that playing organized sports with an adult coach does not replace free play.

Today’s children are more prone to anxiety and depression according to research. There is also an increase in feelings of narcissism and helplessness in children and researchers note that this coincides with the increased supervision and control that parents provide. The researchers say that the decline in free play has input to these issues.

Peter LaFreniere, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Maine points out that especially for boys ‘rough-and-tumble’ types of play helps them to learn emotional regulation. By knowing when to back off they learn to keep friends. If they hurt the other child or cannot stop when things are getting too heated then they are not learning the skill of keeping their anger under control.

LaFreniere says that, “It’s better to make the mistakes when you’re four,” and he further explained that, “Children learn there are consequences to their actions; they learn to regulate the aggression even in the heat of the moment”.

Although there is a growing body of research indicating that children’s mental health and fitness improves with playing there is still a decline in the amount of time children can play.

In surveys the trend can be seen clearly. One study from about 10 years ago approached 830 mothers in the U.S. and asked them the compare their own play routines when they were children with their children’s. Only 31% of children were seen to play outside daily, whereas that figure rose to about 70% when the mothers were considered. It was also noted by the researchers that when children today did go out to play they stayed outside for less time.

Another survey, which is cited by Gray in his work, shows that in 1981 the numbers of 6 to 8 year olds were playing outside were higher than in 1997. It was found that about 25% less children played outside at the finish of the survey.

Gray adds that this trend is speeding up for a number of reasons. Parents fear of having their children abducted is a major concern, as are worries about bullies in the neighborhood and road safety. Even though children are remaining indoors more often now one survey found that 89% of children would prefer playing outside rather than watch television.

Perhaps the most damning point of view comes from Hara Estroff Marano, an author based in New York and writer of the book A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting. He states that the parents’ fears have made them overprotective who are, in turn, rearing “wimps” who cannot manage to deal with life’s problems because they have not learned how to do so.

He says, “The home of the brave has given way to the home of the fearful, the entitled, the risk averse, and the narcissistic. Today’s young, at least in the middle class and upper class, are psychologically fragile”.

LaFreniere concludes by giving his view on the situation. He says, “Parents have to remember that childhood is this special time. You only get it once, and you don’t want to miss it. Mixing it up with other kids in an unrestrained manner isn’t just fun. It isn’t a luxury. It’s part of nature’s plan”.


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