Apparently, I am not the only parent to find their child “hula hooping” on the Wii in the living room when the sun is shining outside! According to a new book, The Power of Play by psychologist David Elkind, the quality and frequency of play is deteriorating. The latest research suggests that despite all that we know about the mental, emotional and social benefits of play for children, children today have eight hours less unstructured play and outdoor activities than 20 years ago. In 2000, the Surgeon General remarked that this may be the first generation of American children who are less healthy than their parents, citing that as many as two thirds of our children have at least one health problem.
Dr. Elkind has identified three factors that are limiting healthy play in children: fear, time and technology. In our culture, there is a fear of falling behind in academic and sport skills. Advanced educational programs, specialty summer camps, and competitive team sports feed the fear and suck up kids’ time. Parental fear of lack of safety outside keep kids indoors. Media coverage of abductions and drive-by shootings exaggerate the perception of the risk of letting kids play outside. Our over-scheduled children seek to “chill out” during their down time, and screens fill that perceived need.
Entertainment and educational technology, while useful and not entirely harmful, tend to encourage passivity; traditional play is active and engaging, encouraging creativity and movement. Technology definitely has its place, but we mustn’t allow it to replace a valuable component of childhood.
Traditionally, kids learn to figure things out independently through play. Rules, creativity, conflict management, negotiation, developing healthy interests, stress busting, are only some of the long list of positives that come from unstructured playtime. I challenge you to get your kids out there in the natural (not virtual) world. Recruit some friends from school or rally the neighbors to gather to teach them about good old-fashioned fun. Get your children moving with old-school pastimes like a game of catch, hide-and-seek or Red Rover.
It is not too late to boost the playfulness in your family. Consider instituting game night at home and insist on participation—but for your teen’s sake, please don’t schedule family game night on Friday or Saturday! Give everyone a chance to pick a game and see if they like the games that you played when you were younger.
Dress up and role-play games help kids to experience different perspectives and enhance creativity. Did you ever make a fort when you were a child? Solitary play is also important. When I was growing up we moved a lot. My favorite doll was a small troll named Penelope. Penelope lived for many years in a shoebox under my bed. I spent hours decorating her box and took Penelope everywhere I could, even to the hospital when I had my tonsils removed! My imaginary play with Penelope served many purposes, cognitive (the inventions for her box home), emotional (Penelope was always living under my bed, no matter where I lived), and social (It is hard to be a new kid, Penelope was always ready to play with me).
Of course, I didn’t know all that stuff then, I just knew it was fun. What are your playtime memories? Rekindle them with your children and help them develop their own.
Dr. Lisa Marotta is a health service psychologist within The Counseling and Consulting Offices of Paul Tobin and Ann Benjamin. She ends every child session with a quick game and always enjoys a puppet show. Dr. Marotta and her husband Sal live in Edmond with their two teenage daughters.