Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Importance of Unstructured Play

A recent article in Time magazine, “The Growing Backlash Against Overparenting,” http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1940395,00.html raises interesting issues about appropriate play and autonomy for children. For instance we have let free play for 6 to 8 year olds decline by 25% from 1981 to 1997 without considering what if any implications that might have. It is time to think hard about children’s out of school time.

In 1955, the Mickey Mouse Club premiered. www.youtube.com/watch?v=BmS2PTn6vE8. In that broadcast, Mattel advertised its Thunder Burp gun. http://www.neatstuff.net/guns/Burp-Gun.jpg. That advertisement marked the first time a toy company advertised outside the Christmas season and may have change childhood play forever.

According to Howard Chudacoff, a cultural historian at Brown University and author of Children at Play: An American History, our children’s free time activities tend to revolve around one of three activities—products, screens, or organized activities. Prior to the burp gun commercial, children’s free time tended to revolve around peers and unsupervised activities. “Let’s play good guys and bad guys” has morphed into “let’s play Cops and Robbers on X-Box” and “let’s go outside and jump rope” is more likely to become “let’s go to Skip Sensations practice.”

As parents, we encourage (and sometimes demand) organized structured or indoor activities hoping to enrich and keep our children safe. However, this enrichment and safety come at a price. For instance, according to a study by Elena Brodrova, a psychologist at the Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning (http://nieer.org/about/bio.php?PersonID=7), children’s ability to self-regulate has eroded dramatically in the last 60 years. Research indicates that today’s typical seven year old does not have the self-regulation ability of a 1950’s five year old. Brodrova’s concludes that the reduction of self-regulated and non-supervised activities drive this lack of self-regulation. Her findings are supported by Walter Mischel, a psychologist from Columbia http://www.columbia.edu/cu/psychology/indiv_pages/mischel.html. According to Mischel, self-regulating skills are collated with high academic performance, career success, and personal happiness. Indeed, the correlation of self-regulation to academic success is higher than its correlation with IQ.

And further, both psychologists believe that self-regulation can be taught and improved upon. High self-regulators practice “private speech”-- internal speech which contemplates what to do and how to do it. According to Laura Berk, a self-regulator researcher (http://www.abacon.com/berk/ica/index.html), one of the best ways for children to develop private speech skills is engaging in unstructured, imaginative play. Structured activities, be they leagues or video games, limit self-regulation and private speech and may well work to the detriment of our children. Think about interpersonal issues that must be navigated when children play soccer unsupervised and compare it to asking an adult coach to resolve a dispute during a Triangle United practice.

So here is the irony. Parents complain about all the activities to which they drive their children. Children complain about how exhausted they are from all the activities. Teachers complain students have no time to do homework after their outside activities. We know that studies indicate that too many outside activities may be detrimental to ultimate success and happiness. But yet, the zeitgeist says we must continue to push for our children to be happy. However, the tide might be turning. There seems to be a “slow parent” movement growing. One that claims downtime and even boredom is good for children. Carl Honore, author of Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting claims that less extra-curricular activities are good for children and for family harmony. Maybe we should all embrace a little less structured time.

I will admit when our children were young, we limited them to one outside activity per academic year and limited their screen time. It enabled us to eat almost every dinner as a family and it gave our children time to use their imagination. They were rarely bored and developed independent interests. Further, they realized that while we loved them, we also had lives that needed nurturing and saw adults pursuing their passions and not just as glorified chauffeurs. (See the attached cartoon http://www.chron.com/apps/comics/showComick.mpl?date=20090928&name=Zits )

Feel free to make comments on the blog to suggest strategies you use to balance your children’s and your lives. This page will be more fun with interaction.

For a more in-depth reportage on the issue of unstructured play check out the following links. I relied heavily on these articles for the piece above.



  1. Dave,

    As you may know, I enjoy the kind of sci-fi/futuristic lit that extends current trends a short ways into the future. The book that most resonates with your musings here is "Rash" by Pete Hautman, in which he envisions that the USA evolves into the USSA, or the United Safety States of America. In the USSA, the world record in the 100 meter spring is about 13 seconds, because for safety's sake runners must wear knee pads and helmets while running on a very cushioned & slow surface. Road rage is punishable with prison time, and there are interesting perspectives on controlled substances. We read this in 6th grade book clubs and it's always a hit with kids. It's also thought-provoking for us adults. Thanks for the thoughts.

  2. On my holiday read list. You have a copy?

  3. I agree. Unstructed play time is becoming more and more hard to come by. We actually spend more time each year teaching children HOW to play instead of always waiting to be entertained.