End of Play

Author: Malcolm McDowell Woods

Published Date: 2/18/2019

Categories: Biology Education F1RST Magazine F1RST Spring 2019 Faculty and Staff Philosophy, Politics and Economics Psychology Students

The Play's the Thing

Unstructured, imaginative play is critical to a child's development.
Why, then, are kids getting so little play?

It was the middle of July. A shorts and T-shirt day. A flip-flop day. At a park in metropolitan Milwaukee,red-winged blackbirds trilled and buzzed, flitting from tree branch to tall flower stalks. Families of ducks drifted slowly in a pond. Frogs peeked from the water’s edge. Turtles sunned themselves on rocks and logs in the water. A light northerly wind pulled at the leaves in the trees and left the wildflowers nodding gently.

But aside from the birds and the wind, the park was quiet. Aside from a sole adult walking a dog, the space was empty. No other people on this afternoon. No kids. No clatter and shouts from bike riders careening along the trails. No splashes and no giggles from little game hunters on the lookout for those frogs and turtles. Not a one.
This was a near perfect day, mind you. 78 degrees. No rain. No snow. No boiling heat pushed up from the southern states. Just snow-white clouds and a cooling breeze and blue skies and the natural world humming along, uninterrupted. What happened to the kids?

Back in the day, in the ’70s, I lived in a small town in the Pacific Northwest. On summer days like this, my friends and I headed outdoors after polishing off our cereal and went straight to the woods behind our homes. We’d spend the day outside, coming home exhausted after dark. What happened to play?

The End of Play

According to a slew of recent studies, my experience wasn’t unique: many children are spending less time outdoors and less time playing on their own than they did several decades ago. Enter “children’s play deficit” in the search bar at Google and 27,000,000 results turn up. 

There are really a couple of trends at work. One is a reduction in the amount of time children spend outdoors. In a study conducted by the Gallup Organization in the United States, parents reported that their children spent an average of 10.6 hours in unstructured outdoor play each week, but 18.6 hours per week glued to a screen. Other studies found similar results. In 20 years, the amount of time a typical American child spent in front of a screen has more than doubled, from three hours daily to six and a half. In a study reported on by the National Wildlife Federation, children in the states spend an average of 30 minutes in unstructured outdoor play compared to more than seven hours a day sitting in front of a digital screen. And a study commissioned by the National Trust in the United Kingdom reported that children there play outdoors an average of just over four hours a week, compared to more than eight hours for their parents when they were children.

Forty years ago, parents tut-tutted about television as the great distraction; today it’s video games and cyber-reality that seem to hold our children’s attention. But the factors contributing to the lack of kids in the park that summer day are many (and it should be noted my experience was distinctly middle class—not all children have verdant landscapes like the one I described in their backyards).

And it’s not just time spent outside that has dropped; it’s time spent at unstructured, unsupervised play in general. When I describe my lonely park experience to Dr. Jessica Lahner, a lecturer of clinical/counseling psychology at Carroll, she is not surprised. “It would really shock me if it wasn’t the case that many children today have a play deficit,” she said. Where were the children? That’s easy, she said. If they weren’t playing video games, “they were at dance class, or soccer, or some other organized activity. Now, those rule-oriented, parent-directed activities are good, but they’re not play.”

So, what is play? When we talk about play, just what sort of activity do we mean? According to Lahner, “Real play doesn’t have adult-imposed rules. Instead, children make the rules up as they go. Play is not so much about the outcome, but about the process. The goal is not the point of play, is it?” Her short and sweet description of play: child-focused, child- centered and child-directed.

It turns out that play is serious work. Researchers are realizing that children need play. It occupies an important role in human development.
textured background

“We are helicopter parenting way more than ever before. Kids are involved in so many structured activities today in part because, if they aren’t, we feel we’re being bad parents.”

—Dr. Jessica Lahner —

(Some) Birds Do It

Actually, humans aren’t the only creatures which rely on play. 

Dr. Susan Lewis, a professor of biology at Carroll, said for a long time, biologists hadn’t thought much about the role of play in the animal world. It seemed less serious than other things to study and, Lewis noted, play is one of those things that’s hard to define—you know it when you see it. But modern researchers have begun to pay attention to what appears to be an important role occupied by play in the animal world. Anyone with a dog or cat has observed their pet seemingly at play—chasing a ball or scrambling after a laser dot. As a matter of fact, according to Lewis, that’s one of several types of play researchers have differentiated—object, active and social. 

In object play, animals will bat around an item, swiping at it, possibly picking it up by mouth, even shaking or tossing it. Scientists hypothesize that by doing this, animals are developing the motor skills needed as adult predators to catch and disable their prey. In active play, seen more often among prey animals, running and jumping occupy center stage as animals develop the muscle memory that will aid them in escaping predators. And in social play, young animals test themselves and one another, learning limits to their behaviors.

Play appears more often in species of higher intelligence and most often in mammals, according to Lewis, who notes that such play rarely extends into adulthood. But that’s not to say it’s exclusive to more advanced mammals. Some birds exhibit play-like behavior,as do octopuses and even some reptiles, though these have mostly been observed while held in captivity. 

Regardless of the species involved,play appears to perform important functions in the development of the individual, said Lewis. Through play, the young learn how to hunt or avoid capture, how to act around others, even how to mate. Should it surprise us, then, that play is important to humans?

The Benefits of Play

“What are the benefits of play?” asks Lahner. “When children play, they’re working stuff out, they’re processing stuff, making sense of their experiences.” As children play with one another, conflict eventually arises. “They learn to work through hard things. They learn to recognize emotions—both their own and of others. Play allows them to develop better social/emotional regulation skills.”

Through imaginative, pretend play, children develop their empathy. “I can kind of understand what it is like to be you,” explains Lahner. 

“These kids are better able to take on multiple perspectives and kids who don’t have this are at a real disadvantage when they grow up.”

Dr. Kevin Guilfoy, a professor of philosophy, said he believes unstructured, imaginative play is in fact critical to moral development. “If you have to make up your own rules, you’ll have to respond to how those rules might affect others,” he noted. “It’s how you develop character. You have to practice that. You don’t become an independent person overnight.”

Guilfoy also touched on the issue of the drop-off in time children spend outdoors. “And even when kids are outdoors, we pretty much make the outside just like the indoors, with rules and boundaries,” he said, recounting a family trip a couple years ago to several national parks. “The parks are almost like shopping malls, with paths and play areas. Everything is so structured. I know my own children, in a way, have sort of been trained to look for boundaries.” He wonders if one result is a generation of children less willing to venture out on its own. 

Video screens of all sizes are prime culprits in the play deficit, but parents themselves might have to share the blame. 

“As parents, we’re afraid of our kids being bored,” Lahner noted. She recalled her own childhood. The growing number of households where both parents worked coupled with more single parent households gave rise to the latchkey generation. “Our moms worked, we ate processed foods, we were left to fend for ourselves, so we did.”

But by the time those latchkey kids became parents themselves, the pendulum had swung in the other direction. “We are helicopter parenting way more than ever before,” she noted, micro-managing the minutes in our children’s days. “Kids are involved in so many structured activities today in part because if they aren’t, we feel we’re being bad parents.” 

Boredom, it seems, is the enemy. “But boredom is where you’re allowed to be creative,” argued Lahner. “When we’re busy, we don’t have time to be creative. We have to be comfortable with being bored.” 

And if that’s hard for a parent, imagine being a teacher. As children spend such a large amount of time in school, it figures that the role of play would be an important topic to educators.

textured background

“And even when kids are outdoors, we pretty much make outside just like the indoors, with rules and boundaries...The parks are almost like shopping malls, with paths and play areas.”

—Dr. Kevin Guilfoy —

The Role of Recess

“We know that unstructured, dramatic play is important,” concurred Dr. Kerry Kretchmar, an associate professor of education at Carroll. “One piece we know that has happened outside of our schools is that there has been a dramatic increase—especially among middle and upper classes—of highly structured activities for children,” she said. “There has been a narrative for a while that the more structured opportunities are provided to children, the more chance they will have to succeed.” That trend has been reflected in most classrooms as well. 

It goes back to the no child left behind movement. That’s guiding a lot of the decisions being made. “We are in a time in education where there is intense pressure to be able to measure and quantify everything kids are doing and the reality is that play isn’t easily quantifiable,” Kretchmar noted. Even kindergarten and early childhood classes have been swept up in that as well. 

“Twenty to 30 years ago, Pre-K and 4-K still had a playtime focus and that’s no longer true in most school districts at this point. Now, that’s not to say there aren’t exceptional teachers who find creative ways to bring play into the curriculum, but they have to work to do that.”

That race to meet academic expectations might have a harsher impact in disadvantaged schools.  

There are a host of benefits to play, but that research has been ignored by most districts and especially by disadvantaged districts, where the answer has been to place a greater emphasis on academics (for example, extra reading time instead of increased playtime). “As a result, we see a real inequity in early childhood education as far as exposure to play,” noted Kretchmar. 

Research shows that, in the long term, play has positive impacts on literacy and math achievement. Kids that have that time and space to play become better readers, writers and problem solvers. A lack of play also hinders the development of the social/emotional skills that are so important, not only to the day-to-day classroom, but to the child’s ultimate health.

Kids need that time to play, and when they don’t have it, it can impact their ability to engage and build relationships with others.

Sarah Norgord is a Carroll senior majoring in elementary education and special education, with a minor in early childhood education. She explored the importance of play in early childhood education for Kretchmar’s class in educational advocacy this past fall. She combined research with onsite observations in area classrooms to investigate the various types of play and how they might be facilitated in educational settings. 

“I really didn’t know all the benefits play could offer, and I didn’t realize all the different forms of play,” Norgord said. “Play allows children to learn lifelong skills, but also allows kids to be kids and use their imagination and creativity,” Norgord wrote. “If children are given the chance to work together and collaborate with their peers, think outside of the box and discover things for themselves, they will become independent and critical thinkers.

“Some see play as just messing around, but nothing is further from the truth.”


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