Play deprivation is responsible for the increasing mental health crisis among America’s youth, Peter Gray, a leading expert on the psychology of play and a professor of psychology at Boston College, says.
“Allowing more unsupervised free play is among the most powerful and least expensive ways to bring down rates of mental illness,” he says.
As a child, we spent many summer days at our family’s rustic, self-constructed cabin on Lake Minnewaska. In all, four cabins sat along the steep bluff on the south side of the lake, with woods and ravines on either side. Behind the lots was a large apple orchard and the remains of an old farmstead. All four cabins were owned by descendants of a generation of relatives who bought land on Minnewaska 100 years ago.
In our childhood days, there were no televisions, internet, or cell phones at the lake. We were left to our imagination for play and used it to our delight. And, unknowingly, to our future mental health and development.
In the woods, we built a raised platform using small trees for posts. It was more than a fort; it was the launching pad for the game. One team was on the platform about 4 feet off the ground, and the other spread around it. While there was level ground on three sides, to the north was the “cliff” down to the lake. The object was to get off the platform and escape without getting touched. The challenging part was getting back on it untouched,
We learned to coordinate our escape efforts and return. There were sprained ankles, scraped up knees, and encounters with burning weed. But more than anything, we remember the laughter, companionship, and challenge. Boys and girls, mostly siblings and cousins, playing out of sight and supervision of adults.
“… over the past five decades or more we have seen…a continuous and overall huge decline in children’s freedom to play or engage in any activities independent of direct adult monitoring and control,” Gray writes.
“With every decade children have become less free to play, roam, and explore alone or with other children away from adults, less free to occupy public spaces without an adult guard, and less free to have a part-time job where they can demonstrate their capacity for responsible self-control.”
Gray says these changes have come about as parents have become increasingly protective of their children out of fear of the dangers of injury, abduction, and bullying. Children are constantly guarded. Time dedicated to structured classwork, homework, and formal sports or lessons overseen by adults cut into playtime.
When it comes to child mental health, happiness, and time for play, we also know that the addictive pull of smartphones and tablets isolates kids. Rather than play, rather than interact with friends, they sit alone.
As unsupervised and unstructured playtime has decreased, we’ve seen a substantial and frightening increase in the rates of child anxiety, depression, and suicide, Gray writes. “By 2019, suicide was the second leading cause of death for children from age 10 through 15, behind only unintentional injury (including traffic fatalities,)” he writes.
While social media and smartphones play a role in a child’s isolation and reduced playtime, they may not be the primary problem.
“If you read the popular press, you would think the problem is screens and social media, or almost anything else other than the fact that we have more or less locked children up around the clock,” Gray writes.
“You would think it would be obvious that taking away free play and other freedoms to act independently would make children anxious, depressed, and in some cases suicidal, but we adults are remarkably skilled at burying our heads in the sand on this issue,” he says.
Our schools have increasingly focused on academic success based on tests. However, what is suffering is the mental health of our children. “There is also research showing that when children are allowed a little more play—such as when schools offer a little more recess—the kids become happier,” Gray writes. No phones allowed during recess. Kids must interact with one another. Happy kids learn better and are easier to teach.
“Research…shows that play is a direct source of children’s happiness. When children are asked to depict or describe activities that make them happy, they depict or describe scenes of play,” Gray writes. “Research also reveals that children consider play to be activity that they themselves initiate and control.”
When children are free to structure their own playtime and free time, they are better able to develop a “strong sense of being able to solve their own problems and take charge of their own lives, and are much less likely to suffer from anxiety and depression.” Gray says.
To experience situations where they are in control requires kids to be given responsibility and left to rise or fall on their own. When kids never have the opportunity to fail, then try again to overcome the challenges, how do they learn self-confidence and persistence? They don’t. They either quit or ask the person hanging over their shoulder to do it for them.
Summer vacation is not just a great time for students to have free time to play; it is time to develop independence and responsibility.
When kids structure their own time they score better on tests that assess their ability to create a plan and follow through on it, have more emotional control and ability to interact socially, and are more self-disciplined. These qualities lead to success and better mental health as adults.
Too “many people are focusing on drugs and therapy, as if something is wrong with the kids that needs correction, and not enough of us are thinking about prevention,” Gray writes. Children are designed to play and explore and thereby becoming increasingly independent as they grow older.”
Play is preventative medicine with long-lasting positive results. Children have more unstructured playtime. Where better than rural America for children to grow up experiencing the freedom to play?