Parenting Tip: Kids Need More Unstructured Play Time

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outdoor play parenting tip

Being a kid in 2019 is quite different than being a kid in the 1950s, although in some ways children nowadays are well-advanced from their peers in earlier eras. Today’s kids have mastered advanced technology, standardized testing, athletic scholarships and dual enrollment in high school and college; yet, they seem to suffer in ways that their early-era counterparts did not. If I could give one parenting tip for families of this modern age, it would be: Let your kids have more unstructured play time.

Dr. Peter Gray is an American scholar, researcher and professor of psychology at Boston College. In a TED talk, Gray addressed the issue of free play among today’s youths. He said it is sorely lacking. Its absence has also taken a serious toll on the emotional, mental, intellectual, physical and spiritual health of children in the United States.

Then and now

Gray pointed out a stark difference between a typical school day in the 1950s and 2019. The former, for instance, included several accumulative hours of outdoor, unstructured play while the latter sometimes does not include any outdoor play at all.

Parenting tip from tribal communities

When researchers study tribes who live hunter/gather lifestyles, they often note that the children spend hours completely unsupervised by adults and are free to roam and play as they like. The adults in these communities say their children learn to survive because they explore and encounter challenges in nature. They must also figure out how to solve problems alone or with the help of their peers.

Modern academics have taken a toll

Children used to play freeze tag and have relay races. Kids would climb trees, skip rocks across ponds and explore woods. They spent countless hours make-believing by themselves or with siblings and friends. The Wright Brothers created the designs for the first airplane by observing birds in the wild for hours on end. Electronic gadgets and emphasis on “making the grade” have replaced the innocence and freedom of childhood that were once “a given.”

Also, according to Dr. Gray, anxiety, depression and suicide among young people is five to eight times higher than when he was young. Less interaction with parents, more marital break-ups and more isolated activity has led to increased narcissism in children.

Parents can help by being counter-cultural

Sunlight, fresh air and free time do wonders for children’s well-being. If they have hours of homework every day and structured sports time in between, there is little to no time left for unstructured play. A parenting tip that can help you resolve this is to limit screen time and play with your children.

In addition, parents can focus less on academics and more on providing their kids ample opportunity to exist without structure. Moms and dads should also encourage their kids to pretend. Parents can step back and allow their children to learn how to solve personality conflicts with friends on their own terms because this is a life skill all children need.

It’s time to re-prioritize

While considering free play, parents must realize that many children growing up in 2019 don’t really know what they’re missing. Unstructured play time has never been part of their lives. A parenting tip that will have far-reaching, positive implications is to make free play a priority. Let your kids splash in puddles, build dirt piles, lie on their backs and watch clouds go by. Parents themselves need to put away their cell phones, take a break from social media, stop working and spend time with their kids.

Investment of time spent with your kids is a parenting tip that will never be wasted. Your children and our nation at large will be better off if we take Dr. Gray’s advice and spend more free time in outdoor play.

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