The Pure Joy of Play
Why Kids Need Unstructured Fun
by Ronica O’Hara
Not so long ago, kids would be shooed out the door to play and told to return home at meal time. But the rising use of digital devices and kids’ highly scheduled sports and school activities, as well as parental fears about safety, has made that kind of unstructured play rare—with resulting drops in children’s independence, resilience and creativity, experts say. In fact, play has been shown to be so critical to children’s development that an American Academy of Pediatrics 2018 clinical report, “The Power of Play,” recommends that doctors write prescriptions for it.
“Play is not frivolous; it is brain building,” concludes the report. It defines play as voluntary, fun and spontaneous activities that engross a child, often resulting in joyous discovery, and includes imaginative make-believe, experimenting and risk-taking. It cites 147 studies showing that play builds skills critical for adult success such as problem solving, collaboration and creativity; decreases stress, fatigue, injury and depression; and increases range of motion, agility, coordination, balance and flexibility.
Here are some ways to up the play in children’s lives:
1 Give them lots of free time away from devices. Yes, they might be bored at first—but boredom enhances creativity, partly by allowing for daydreaming, concludes a study from the UK’s University of Central Lancashire.
2 Encourage fun, rather than
competition. By age 6, 60 percent of American boys and 47 percent of girls are participating on organized sport teams, but three out of four kids quit sports by age 13—one major reason being, “I was not having fun.” Play, on the other hand, is based on pure enjoyment and spontaneous collaboration among kids, minus overanxious adult “sidelining”. “When children play in their own ways, they generally play cooperatively. We adults impose competition, unfortunately. Yet even in our competitive society, the really successful and happy people are the ones who are oriented toward cooperation,” says Peter Gray, Ph.D., a Boston
College psychology professor and author of Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life.
3 Encourage them to take the lead. Let kids decide whether they want to play with friends, siblings or alone. They will happily make up their own games with lots of raw materials that are on hand—blocks, balls, puzzles, crayons, boxes, wooden spoons, old costumes and hats, sand, water, tarps and shovels. “Play is how children learn to create and govern their own activities and solve their own problems independently of adults,” says Gray. “Stated differently, it is how children learn to become adults. This value is destroyed when adults take charge of children’s activities.”
4 Back off from hovering supervision. It can rob them of a sense of ownership and accomplishment. Leigh Ellen Magness, a clinical social worker and registered play therapist in Athens, Georgia, grappled with anxiety as she watched her 5-year-old son clamber up a roadside sculpture designed for climbing. “He climbed so high that my stomach flip-flopped to see him so far from me. But I knew there was no better way for him to learn the limits of his own body than to test them,” she says.
Mariana Brussoni, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department of pediatrics and the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia, Canada, concurs: “When they’re given the chance, even very young children show clear abilities to manage risks and figure out their
own limits. The potential for learning
5 Don’t worry. “The data show that children are far more likely to get injured in adult-directed sports, where they are pushed to compete, than in free play,” says Gray. “Moreover, the kinds of injuries that occur in free play are relatively easy to recover from.” As for the fear of kidnapping by strangers, the odds are very small—one in a million, according to the latest U.S. Department of Justice data. “Weigh the effect of the limits you place on your kids to prevent that very, very, very unlikely possibility versus the fundamental importance for their own health and development of exploring freedom,” advises Brussoni.
Ronica A. O’Hara is a Denver-based
freelance health writer. Connect at