Hustle, hustle, hurry, hurry! Get the shin guards. Grab snacks. Don’t forget diapers for the baby! It’s soccer season, and free play is out of the question.
A 2001 study shows that between 1981 and 1997, free playtime for kids decreased by an astonishing 25%. (1) A separate article from 2011 states that the decline continues. (2)
Why the decline of free play? One, there has been an increase of structured activities: lessons, teams, groups. Two, the world of competition pushes children into heavy academic learning or more adult-type roles earlier. And, three, when children do have free time, they are more likely to spend it behind a screen.
Plus, our society no longer values free play for children. Why should we let our kids waste their time playing, when they could be making good use of it learning to dance, play competitive sports or code apps at age two?
Don’t get me wrong. I understand that some kids love such activities, and that organized activities do have their place.
But the loss of free play is tragic, and greatly hampers a child’s development. For a child, play IS work.
Why? You ask. Children develop critical skills during free play. Keep reading for four:
During free play, children develop “planning, organizing, sequencing, decision making… inhibition and impulse control skills.”3
Can you imagine life as an adult without these abilities? How do you get anything done when you can’t plan and organize? How do you learn to read without the ability to control impulses?
Free play gives children what they practically need for life.
Every part of unstructured play with a parent, a friend or a sibling requires a child to communicate, resolve conflict and work with another person: should we play Jenga or race outside? We both want this toy. What are we going to do about that?
Through play, children learn what works and what doesn’t in relationship. They learn how to “develop and sustain friendships, to cooperate, to lead, and to follow.”3 They learn to healthfully advocate for themselves, their wants and needs. In my personal experience, they also learn to care for and defend younger children.
I hope my children make friends and choose spouses that have had free play time to learn theses skills.
Studies show that children who have time for free play have “improved mood and emotional well-being.” Doesn’t this just make sense?
When I was still an emotional wreck five months after the birth of my son, I considered seeing a doctor about postpartum depression. Instead, a fellow mom recommended I try the gym. After 30 minutes of exercise, I slept easier at night, and my emotions stabilized. I now call going to the gym “getting my brain back.” 😂
If it works for me, why wouldn’t it work for a child as well?3
A life they love
Free play time allows children to discover what excites and motivates them. Do they like to read alone? Do they prefer to be outside with friends? How about tinkering with the house electronics?
The self- awareness a child gleans from free play gives them create a life they love and, “ultimately, engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue.” 4
My two oldest children did one season of soccer when they were four and five years old. At the time, I thought it was a great decision: let them run out some of their energy!
What I discovered, though, was that the stress of mobilizing my family of four was not worth the energy the children expended… on the nights they didn’t sit next to me on the sidelines, complaining of an ache or pain.
While my little ones did enjoy some of the soccer process (namely the trophy at the end), it would have been better if I had bought them a soccer ball and sat in our backyard while they kicked it around. It would have saved me the stress, and the free play time would have helped them develop skills for life.
Science agrees with my conclusion: Free play is critical.
- Hofferth SLSandberg JF Changes in American children’s use of time, 1981-1997. Owens THofferth SLeds. Children at the Millennium: Where Have We Come From, Where Are We Going? Amsterdam, the Netherlands Elsevier Science Publishers2001;193- 229 Google Scholar