How many times have you heard that the best way for kids to learn life skills is through involvement in a team sport? While it is true that playing organized sports does have benefit, the way in which society in the United States now approaches youth sports often means kids have very little, if any, time for unstructured play. Decades of research clearly shows that free play (or downtime for adolescents) is a very important part of creating life success for children and yet we continue to see less and less of it.
“Free play” is defined to mean unstructured play that is child-centered, child initiated and without pre-set rules, boundaries or goals. Essentially, free play is what you see happen naturally on playgrounds and in parks when children are allowed to just roam. When free play includes being outdoors and physical activity, the benefits are even greater.
Much of the research looks at changes from 1981 to 1997 which shows roughly a 25% decline in free play, mostly being replaced by structured activities and school work. From my own personal and anecdotal experiences from well before to well after those dates, I would suggest that decline is much greater now especially with the way technology has changed. It appears the primary factors involved in the reduction of free play include greatly increased focus on structured activities and a hurried, highly scheduled lifestyle, greatly increased focus on academic preparation, the increase of technology use during downtime and concerns about safety for children.
In my therapy office, I often get parental push back when I suggest that unstructured time for kids needs to be built into schedules. There is so much societal and peer pressure to play sports that require massive amounts of time year round and to be prepared for the “right” schools and build a resume before age 18. I get it, I can even feel it myself sometimes. The downside of this is serious however. Kids at younger ages and at increasing percentages of the population are showing signs of stress, anxiety and depression. In addition, more parents are feeling burdened, have less time to simply enjoy downtime with their kids and are feeling the effects of family and marital stress.
The pressures, both internal and externally driven, on adolescents and young adults to “do it all” are actually leading to being LESS equipped to successfully transition into adulthood and college. Many are struggling with perfectionism and a lack of self regulation skills. Health services at colleges are reporting 61% of students are feeling hopelessness, 45% are feeling so depressed they aren’t functioning well and 9% has thoughts of suicide.
The benefits of free play are many. In fact, play is so important to overall child development that the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights views it as a RIGHT of every child. Unstructured play time is essential to emotional well-being, as well as social, physical and cognitive development. Among the noted benefits of free play are better academics, learning to problem solve, decision making, emotional control, social interaction and cooperation, learning self direction and most importantly, general happiness. In addition, children who are allowed plenty of free time for play show higher self esteem, and an increased flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances as well better social success.
We do know that sports provide benefits for kids. I would argue that the way in which we as a society approach organized sports, however, needs to change. We need a return to balance for everyone’s benefit. Even when the focus of the research is on youth sports specifically, the findings are clear. According to professor Matthew Bowers, there is a significant and positive correlation between time spent playing sports informally and creativity whereas the exact opposite was true for time spent playing organized sports.
Youth who have “above-average” creativity had more balance between how much time is spent in each sport setting with slightly more of their total leisure time spent in informal sports settings (15% vs 13%) than in organized sports. Those with “below-average” creativity spent 22% of their leisure time in organized sports as compared to only 10% spent informally playing sports. Of note, is that the more creative kids are spending approximately 25% of their total leisure in any sport whereas the less creative kids are spending approximately 32% of their overall free time in sports.
Instead of simply being nostalgic for “bygone days” where kids had time to play without being overly scheduled, I propose parents start doing something different. What seems clear is that we aren’t really achieving the overall success for our kids that we want (or even think we are achieving) when we overly schedule, pressure academically and take away downtime. What one small change can YOU do that might make a difference for your family, let me know below.
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