- A recent research review finds strong evidence of the need for unstructured play.
- Unstructured play is critical for children's mental health, in addition to boosting confidence.
- When children don't play, they are more vulnerable to stress, depression, and anxiety.
Has our drive to protect our children impaired their mental health—and made our conversations with them less rich? Recently Dr. Peter Gray, a psychology professor at Boston College and prominent researcher on child play, alerted me to his recent article exploring exactly this question. The article, in-press as of March 2023 in the Journal of Pediatrics, and written along with David F. Lancy of Utah State and David Bjorlung of Florida State, comes to startling conclusions.
Specifically, the ongoing decline in children’s mental health—and the current mental health emergency for children in the U.S.—appears at least in part to be driven by a lack of opportunities to roam, play, and act independently. When children have little time and encouragement to play, they lose their sense of autonomy. They are not encouraged to think independently, to imagine or dream, or even to navigate the complexities of the world around them. They also have few opportunities to pursue questions of interest to them and to have conversations that evolve from their authentic interests. That is, they don't learn what they care about—and why they care.
Gray cites an observational study of children in 20 parks in Durham, North Carolina. After controlling for many variables, the researchers found that children without an adult visibly present were much more likely to engage in vigorous play. Simply the fact of having an adult hovering seemed to inhibit the children’s play—from young children through teenagers. What’s more, when children don’t have the chance to play together, without constant adult intervention, their conversations with us are often less rich. We don’t have the chance to hear from them about their explorations and collaborations—and they don’t get that opportunity to tell stories to us. Why create stories and narratives for us, and describe their insights, if we are always there?
"We're Too Busy to Let Kids Play"
This research aligns with what I have seen as a speech-language pathologist, lecturer in education, and mother of two. Often, especially among wealthier families—ironically, families who tend to live in areas with more green spaces and safe areas to play—unstructured play is seen as an unnecessary luxury, even a waste of time. Having three or four activities per weekend day has quickly become the norm. Additional academic activities—notably Russian math—have become status symbols as well as attempts to ensure children’s school success.
While these activities indeed can provide a physical and mental boost, if they come at the expense of downtime and unstructured time, they can become counterproductive. Children have little chance for internal thought or decision-making, or for the more complex language of negotiation and collaboration. Worse, as Gray’s article concludes, these limitations are strongly linked to stress, anxiety, and depression, as children gain little experience stretching or challenging themselves. Without the opportunities to build skills, they often start lacking confidence. They may feel as if they can’t take on challenges—since they simply don’t.
Without Play, Kids Use Language Less Flexibly
Consider a child, “Jill,” who’s taken from one place to the other, under constant supervision: to the park, to school, to afterschool activities and to soccer practice. Her conversations are likely to be primarily responses to adult questions and directions; for example, following the directions of a craft activity in afterschool, or answering a parent’s questions about which slide she’d like to go on next. With little chance to speak with other children—or even to have quiet time for her mind to wander—Jill will likely not have much opportunity to use language to negotiate or collaborate.
She also isn’t likely to feel a strong locus of control, or a sense that she can exert control and make decisions about her life, even in small ways. In part due to these feelings, she doesn’t get a lot of practice dealing with issues or frustrations. She doesn’t need to talk herself through problems or find solutions. She mostly needs to respond.
Why does this matter? This kind of talking-through problems lets children build skills they desperately need. As research has shown, the amount of time children have for unstructured play links to their executive function skills and their abilities to regulate themselves, even two years later. When children have downtime, it isn’t simply “empty.” Rather, it is a rich space in which they can ask themselves questions, and can ask questions of others, learning to socialize even as they learn about the world. Our interactions can stretch them, if we aren’t hovering.
How Kids Can Play—And How Our Input Can Help
Consider Jill sitting at the sandbox with her friends, among a stack of buckets and construction tools. The friends decide to construct a play castle. They need to talk through how the moats should be constructed, how the towers should be placed, and who should get which bucket. We can help by sitting back and asking occasional questions, responding when children have trouble managing their arguments, and supporting their questions to grow.
For instance, we could ask questions after play, including, “What was the most interesting part of that structure to you?” or “How did you decide on what roles to play?” You might engage children by thinking about how they took initiative, what worked well and didn't, and with whom they enjoyed working and didn't. These types of questions can lead to far richer interactions than sitting in the middle of children’s activities, constantly chiming in.
Encouraging our society to prioritize these activities is critical, moving forward, to support the health and well-being of the children and teenagers in our lives. For families who fear retribution from social services or the police for letting children take on appropriate challenges, we especially need to provide support. Unstructured play should be an equal opportunity sport.
For more on conversations to have with kids, including specific conversation starters by age and stage, see my recent book, The Art of Talking with Children.