Are You Raising Kids Who Can't Play?

By Parenting Pro Michele Borba, Ed.D.

Over the last few weeks I've been reviewing studies involving children and play. "Shocked" and "disturbed" are the best two words that describe how I feel when I read those reports. Every study has one conclusion: Good old-fashioned play is becoming an endangered pastime for today's kids. Worse yet, play is not only disappearing from our homes and neighborhoods but in our schools as well. Here are just a few facts:

  • Since the late 1970s there's been a 25 percent drop in free play
  • In the same time there has been a 50 percent drop in unstructured outdoor activities while at the same time kids spend in organized sports have doubled and the number of minutes kids devote each week to passive leisure, not including watching television, has increased from 30 minutes to more than three hours
  • The average[i] U.S. child is now "plugged-in" to some kind of digital device-not including cell phone and text-71/2 hours a day
  • More than 30,000 schools across the United States have cut recess[ii]

The loss of play and even skepticism about its value may be partly due to a more competitive, "no-child left untested era" (don't get me started on that one…), our increasingly hurried, quicker-pace life style, and the belief we have to schedule our kids with activity after activity to stretch those IQ points. Whatever the reason, today's kids are playing less and many experts are crying, "Foul!" with good reason. Dozens of studies prove that play is not just a luxury but essential to our children's healthy development.

11 Scientific Benefits of Play for Kids

We've always known that "kids and play" are just a natural combo. But new research also shows that letting kids engage in self-directed play has immense value for their social, emotional, cognitive and physical growth. Here are just a few of the proven scientific benefits[iii] of getting messy and doing something besides clicking those darn keypads and video controllers and doing paper and pencil tasks:

  • Play expands our kids minds and neurological development: Self-initiated play improve skills such as guessing, figuring, interpreting and is important to brain development and learning
  • Play boosts children's creativity and imagination. Play gives children the chance to invent, build, expand, explore and develop a whole different part of the brain.[iv]
  • Play stretches our children's attention spans: Playing outdoors just 30 minutes a day increases child's ability to focus and pay attention.
  • Play and rough-housing boost boys' problem solving abilities: The more elementary school-boys engaged in rough-housing, the better they scored on a test of social problem solving.[v] (Don't ya love that one!)
  • Play boosts self-confidence and self-regulation: Kids learn to become masters of their own destiny without an adult directing, pushing, managing or scheduling
  • Play forges friendships, strengthens social competence and teaches social skills: Undirected play allows kids to learn how to work in groups, share, negotiate, communicate and develop core social skills they need not only now but for the rest of their lives.
  • Play helps kids learn to enjoy just being in their own company, entertain themselves and develop identity: Ease that guilt when your kid says, "I'm bored, Mom!"
  • Reasons 7-11 may be the most beneficial-- and have the longest lasting impact. Click here for those and let us know if you agree!

But there's more: Child-driven play also improves our parent-kid relationship.[viii] Play offers a wonderful opportunity for parents to see the world from our children's eyes as well as strengthen our relationship when we join in. Playing with our kids is one of the few times when clocks stop and stress fades. There's no judgments, schedules or time constraints that worry us. It's just a glorious opportunity to give our kids our full presence, be in their space and enjoy each other's company, and build those wonderful childhood memories.

So parents, spring is here. Flowers are blooming, grass is back, snow is thawing (finally!), and mud puddles are popping up. Why not just this week push the pause button and tune into your kids' schedule? Click here for a quiz to gauge your kids' playing power.

What ideas do you have to provide free time in this day and age of packed schedules? Do you feel we're failing our kids when it comes to good ol' fashioned down time? We want to hear from you!

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