American children are busier than ever. Between tutoring, over-scheduled after-school activities, and the addictive lure of video games and smart phones, children spend half as much time playing outside than their parents did. Kids today play outside an average of a dismal 4 hours a week, compared to 8 hours when their parents were children. Sadly, lack of play time robs children of important developmental and health benefits. Humans are actually designed to grow based on plenty of play time (adults too!).
Two of the most important ingredients for beneficial childhood play are the outdoors and boredom. Though it can feel temporarily nightmarish to the child, boredom is great for the developing child brain — it forces children to employ their own agency, creativity, and, if other children are present, collaboration.
Why play is vital to childhood development
Free play develops social, emotional, and academic foundations that will server children later in life. It improves emotional intelligence and the ability to self-regulate. It also helps children learn about themselves, what they’re good at, and what they like to do.
Some industry experts argue that the qualities developed through free play will be what gives those children an edge in a world increasingly dominated by artificial intelligence and robots. Free play encourages compassion, creativity, complexity, and dexterity — skills that will always set humans apart from robots.
Also, health experts argue that lack of sufficient free play is contributing to the explosion of depression and other mental disorders in children. Depression is rising fastest among teens and young adults. Free play develops self-directed life-coping skills in kids that they don’t get in a violin lesson or soccer practice.
For children to fully enjoy the developmental aspects of free play, there is one thing parents must do: stay out of it. “Successful” childhood play is self-motivated by the child, as well as fun, engaging, and free of the normal rules of life.
Several categories of healthy child’s play have been identified:
Imaginative play. This includes drawing, painting, sculpting, and playing with water. Imaginative play is necessary to develop creativity, self-expression, communication, and experimentation with reality.
Building. Kids love to build stuff out of whatever materials available, whether it’s Legos, rocks, or sticks. Building play develops fine motor skills, reasoning skills, resilience (because these structures always collapse), and problem-solving.
Physical play. This is the kind of play that makes harried moms send their kids outdoors in order to protect the furniture. Rough housing, wrestling, play fighting, and other forms of physical play develop gross motor skills, physical fitness, perseverance, and memory.
Dramatic play. Some of the most engrossing forms of childhood play are the elaborate dramas, play acting, dress up, and shows that kids create. This form of play develops emotional regulation, relationship skills, empathy, cooperation, and negotiation.
Nature: A vital ingredient to childhood play
In addition to allowing children the space to transition through boredom into play, the outdoors is another vital ingredient to healthy childhood play.
Between addictive digital lures, overscheduled afterschool activities, and helicopter parenting, children today spend less time outdoors than do maximum security prisoners. This is tragic.
Harvard Medical School has identified these reasons children need to spend ample time outdoors:
Sunshine. Regular exposure to sunshine is necessary for human health to regulate the sleep-wake cycle and hormonal system, prevent mood disorders, and promote healthy immune function and bone growth.
Exercise. Children should exercise an hour a day. Free play outdoors better encourages this.
Healthy risk taking. Taking risks is an important part of free play, despite parental fear. Healthy risk taking during outdoor play helps children build good life skills and confidence.
Socialization. Socialization is one of the most important factors in good health. Letting kids play outside gives them the opportunity to meet other kids and develop social skills.
Appreciation of nature. Many studies point to the health benefits of time spent in nature. Letting children have unstructured play time among trees, dirt, streams, and other natural features instills a lifelong appreciation of nature.
It used to be parents sent their kids outside to play to get them out of their hair. These days, parents must contend with pushback from kids who would rather play video games or do other online activities indoors. Parents too must unplug long enough to enforce some digital-free outdoors play time — in all kinds of weather. Kids act like boredom is going to kill them, but if you let them see it through chances are they’ll eventually engage their innate resources for unstructured play.