What Happened to Free Play?

Growing up in the 1980s, my friends and I had two educations, one at school and one after-school. We played in mixed-age neighbourhood groups almost every day, often until dark. Weekends and summer gave us time to explore, time to daydream, and time to immerse ourselves in hobbies, all without adult supervision. We were independent, we were given so much freedom. It was a ‘golden age’ of free play.

But today, it’s impossible to imagine giving kids that. Everywhere you look, we have reduced children’s freedom to play on their own. The streets are a ghost town, the parks and playgrounds are closely monitored by parents. Playgrounds Without Parents, a recent post by Royan Lee and this article from The Guardian, speak to this problem.

Many parents micromanage their children’s free time, worried that without a diverse skill set in extra-curricular activities, their kids will lose that competitive edge. Childhood has been reduced to a time of resume-building with no time to be wasted on ‘frivolous’ play. In the process, we’ve replaced ‘pickup’ games with adult-directed sports leagues, hobbies with adult-directed classes, and fun with work. Performance has taken the place of play. Children are no longer given opportunities to play and explore in their own chosen ways. Free play doesn’t count for anything, because it’s just play – there’s no place for it on the college or university application.

When parents are asked why their kids don’t play outside anymore, they often cite safety concerns. But the reality is, cases of crime, abduction or abuse by strangers are greatly exaggerated by the media. News reports have manufactured this fear, manipulating parents into thinking that unsupervised play is dangerous. As studies have shown, the actual rate of such cases is low and has been declining in recent years.

While parents’ decisions and the influence of the media have had an impact on kids’ loss of freedom, Audrey Watters, in her recent post, Raising (and Educating) ‘Free Range Kids’, wonders how schools have shaped this reduction in play. Watters raises important questions that are worth discussing:

  • What role do schools play – not simply in monitoring students but in discouraging (or perhaps encouraging) students’ physical freedom?
  • Do we let students roam – physically and intellectually – at school? Why or why not?
  • How does rhetoric about children “in danger” – online and offline – shape how we treat them at school?

This loss of freedom for kids is something I want to come back to and explore in more detail in later posts. It is too large an issue to be covered all at once.

I want to leave you with a talk by Peter Gray on the decline of play. Gray is a developmental psychologist who wrote a book that should be required reading for all parents and teachers. As Lenore Skenazy says, “If you’ve ever wondered why your curious kid is turning into a sullen slug at school, Peter Gray’s Free to Learn has the answer. He also has the antidote.” Gray’s views will change the way you think about your students’ learning and development.

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