American children are too busy to play outside. With their days being consumed by homework, after-school activities, and screen time, children play outside an average of only 4 hours per week. Compare that to their parents who averaged about 8 hours of outside play per week when they were kids. Children (and adults!) are wired to grow based on an abundance of play. Sadly, lack of play time robs children of important developmental and health benefits.
While unstructured time away from video games and smart phones can feel like a nightmare to a child, the boredom that results is crucial for the developing child’s brain. It forces children to employ their own agency and creativity and learn how to collaborate with others.
Why play is essential to childhood development
Free play develops social, emotional, and academic skills that can build a strong foundation for children later in life. It improves emotional intelligence and the ability to self-regulate. It also helps children learn about themselves – what their strengths are and what they enjoy doing.
In a future likely to be increasingly dominated by artificial intelligence, experts argue that free play develops qualities that will set humans apart from robots – like compassion, creativity, complexity, and dexterity.
Health experts also contend that lack of sufficient free play is a major contributor to the explosion of depression and other mental disorders in children. Depression is rising fastest among teens and young adults. Because free play is self-directed, it develops life-coping skills that kids can’t get in a violin lesson or at soccer practice.
The best thing to do for a child to fully benefit from the developmental aspects of free play is…nothing! Allow the child’s play to be self-motivated and it will be fun, engaging, and free of the normal constraints of life.
Consider these elements of healthy child’s play:
Imaginative play. This could include playing with water, painting, drawing, or sculpting. Imaginative play helps a child develop creativity, self-expression, and communication, and encourages them to experiment with reality.
Building. Whether they use Legos, rocks, or sticks, kids manage to build creatively out of whatever materials are available to them. Building play develops fine motor, reasoning, and problem-solving skills as well as resilience (when these structures inevitably collapse).
Physical play. This is the kind of play that puts the furniture at risk. Wrestling, play fighting, and other forms of physical play develop gross motor skills, physical fitness, perseverance, and memory.
Dramatic play. Children become engrossed in elaborate dramas that include play acting, dressing up, and creating shows. This form of play develops emotional regulation, relationship skills, empathy, cooperation, and negotiation.
Nature: A vital ingredient to childhood play
In addition to allowing children the space to transition from boredom into play, children receive the following vital health benefits from playing outside according to Harvard Medical School:
Sunshine. Regular exposure to sunshine is necessary for human health to regulate the sleep-wake cycle and hormonal system. It also prevents mood disorders and promotes healthy immune function and bone growth.
Exercise. Children should exercise an hour every day and getting outside encourages more active play.
Healthy risk taking. Taking risks is an important part of free play, even if it inspires fear in parents. Healthy risk taking during outdoor play helps children build good life skills and confidence.
Socialization. When kids play outside, they have the opportunity to meet other children and develop crucial social skills.
Appreciation of nature. Directing children to enjoy unstructured play time among trees, dirt, streams, and other natural features instills a lifelong appreciation of nature.
Parents used to send their children outside just to get a break. Now, parents are faced with resistance from kids who would rather play video games or do other online activities indoors. This may require parents to unplug from electronic devices themselves to enforce some digital-free outdoor play time. Don’t be intimidated if your kids act like boredom will kill them. If you give them the gift of structured time, they will eventually engage their innate resources for unstructured play.