Play is becoming a dinosaur in the lives of children in 21st century America. According to studies, school-age children's playtime decreased by 25 percent and older children's playtime by 45 percent between 1981 and 1997. Unstructured outdoor activities also declined by 50 percent. Between school, homework, organized youth sports -- which is no longer real play -- music and dance lessons, and other structured activities, children are just too busy to play these days. Children have also lost the ability to play. With increasing frequency, children's play now involves sitting in front of a video-game console, television, or computer, which isn't play at all.
Where Did Play Go?
Many parents have lost sight of the value of play, seeing it as a distraction from their children's efforts in school. They don't understand the essential role that play has in their children's over-all development. Play has been found to:
- Foster creativity and imagination.
- Encourage cognitive, emotional and social skills.
- Cultivate initiative and independence.
- Promote problem solving and decision making.
- Teach emotional control.
- Further cooperation with others.
- Develop motor coordination, enhance physical health and fight obesity.
- Help improve grades.
Schools also contribute to the problem by increasing class and study time and reducing the amount of free time at school. For example, the Atlanta school system dropped recess altogether from its school day. Contrary to the views held by many schools, periodic breaks actually help children's academic efforts. Breaks relieve stress, refresh and stimulate the mind, release pent-up energy, increase interest and improve attention. And remember how fun it was during recess when you were young?
Home Entertainment Centers are a Culprit
The decline in children's play has coincided with the growing popularity of home-entertainment centers. In previous generations, families had a den with a television or a rec room. Backyards were the real entertainment centers, where children climbed on monkey bars, played wiffle ball and tag, and just ran around having fun. The "playgrounds" of today are frequently indoors and centered around electronic media. And today a television and stereo are simply not enough. Thirty-two percent of households now have home-theater systems and these entertainment centers have become the center of family activities. Children no longer have any incentive to play and entertain themselves.
Play Dates: A Necessary Evil?
One of the saddest developments in twenty-first-century family life is the play date, in which parents schedule a time during the week in which a group of children are brought together to play. These events are not only scheduled, but also often highly programmed by adults. This phenomenon is a horrible symptom of the runaway-train life in which families are so overscheduled that free time may soon become extinct. The emergence of the play date also reflects the loss of community in which families now live -- where neighbors often don't know each other -- and the disrepair or disappearance of playgrounds and parks.
The play date is also an outgrowth of parents' concern for their children's safety. This unease is legitimate for many parents who live in neighborhoods in which predatory adults are present and security is a real issue. However, for most parents, this fear is frequently unjustified. Not surprisingly, popular culture has played a significant role in parents' excessive anxiety about their children's safety. Because local and national news organizations are now profit driven, they focus on sensationalistic news, often child molestations, kidnappings and murders. In previous generations, the stories of children who were victims of crime would have never been heard by most parents across the country. But today, with the growth of 24-hour cable news channels and local news stations hungry for ratings, these tragic stories, however rare, are now trumpeted nationally. As a result, parents have developed a inaccurate perception of their children's safety assuming that, because child-related crime is so present in the media, it must occur frequently. The reality is, however, that America has never been safer for children. The incidence of crime against children and the general population has been in decline for the last decade. Of course, you should take reasonable precautions to safeguard your children, but you shouldn't let unfounded fear prevent them from experiencing the essential value of play.
What Can Parents Do?
There is hope for your children though. Children can be effectively weaned off of television and DVD watching and videogames and, in the process, learn to play again. Here are some recommendations:
- Limit the amount of time your children can spend watching TV or playing videogames.
- Help them find alternatives to watching television.
- Encourage them to read.
- Ensure that your children have time for unstructured play (if play dates are a necessary evil, schedule them, then disappear).
- Leave them to their own devices, with little input from you or popular culture.
With these opportunities that you offer your children, you can be confident that they are gaining the cognitive, emotional, social, and physical benefits of play. And don't forget the main reason children should have plenty of playtime: it's fun! Though it may be a challenge in the seemingly nonstop world in which we live, you should do everything you can to allow your children to play with their friends spontaneously and freely as often as possible.