Over the last 50 years, children have lost a great deal of their free time for self-directed play and free time. Psychology researcher Peter Gray from Boston College has studied this cultural shift in the U.S., and is an advocate for the benefits of play. Gray has written, "Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life".
I can remember spending many summers swimming, playing with my neighborhood friends, and riding my bike until dark. Those are some of my fondest memories. In the 1960's, most American neighborhoods were full of children outside, engaged happily playing. Over the last 50 years, fewer children are outside, and more parents have children involved in structured after school activities, sports, and lessons.
The school day and school year is longer. Homework is more intense, even in the very early grades. There is pressure on children and teens to build their resumes, rather than "waste" time with friends.
Many parents are fearful about having children play in the neighborhood. Safety concerns have trumped the need for free play. Most American children have lost the chance to play at something creative that doesn't involve adults or uniforms.
Play, according to Gray's research, is a biological and evolutionary need. Most animals play as babies. They learn about the world this way, as well as develop muscle strength and agility, social skills, and risk taking ability.
Virtually all cultures have their young learn and develop through play.
Gray has identified higher levels of anxiety and depression in children who don't get enough free play. I have a number of children I've seen for child counseling who long for more unstructured free time. Children and teens can get stressed. They need to relax with play frequently for optimum mental health.
Parents need to not over plan and over schedule. While some structure is good for children, such as bedtime and meal times, too much structure is overkill. Remember that for most children, the amount of time they have during the school day to free play--- recesses and lunch--- have been cut way back from what we experienced growing up.
Adults also need to play. Having a hobby that you can lose yourself in is good for us. There is a natural, hypnotic state that our mind goes to when we are playing with gardening, art, hiking, baking, or any other activity we love.
I like to see couples cultivate joint play activities into their relationship also. It's important for couples and families to play together. With couples, playing together elevated the relationship from all business and task-sharing, and helps you associate your partner with play and joy.
When I am counseling families who are healing from loss or trauma, I often want them to begin to play again. This signals to the children that life is not over, and that there will be happier times ahead, despite the death of a family member or the loss of divorce.
Play needs to be taken more seriously. Summer is a perfect time to start building some free time for play in your life, and seeing that the young people in your life get time to create self-directed play as well. Play helps us be happier, more relaxed, self-directed, and less moody. Let's play!