Wowza! The Atlantic followed up their recent opus on overparenting-induced anxiety with a report on how decreased playtime is affecting children’s emotional health, “All Work and No Play: Why Your Kids Are More Anxious, Depressed.” It’s sobering, to say the least. There’s not a whole lot to say on the issue that SZ didn’t make pretty clear in his classic post, “Freezing Repetitions and the Spirit of Play in Thornton Wilder’s Theophilus North (not to mention the conference talk on which it was based). Only minor note is to say that the authors of the article use the word “control” in a way that might initially sound theologically suspect, but is instead meant to contrast with “being controlled.” A child being given the space to pursue his/her own whims in playtime is not only a beautiful example of liberty, it is the opposite of control as we might understand it; it is the experience of freedom, or as Dr. Gray suggests, the experience (and survival) of things being “out of control” or scary which appears to be a key factor in the healthy childhood development. In fact, “playtime,” to the extent that it stands for unstructured, non-evaluated time, might as well be called “gracetime.” No wonder that Dorothy Martyn pursued the play therapy model all these years, ht AP:

An article in the most recent issue of the American Journal of Play details not only how much children’s play time has declined, but how this lack of play affects emotional development, leading to the rise of anxiety, depression, and problems of attention and self control.

“Since about 1955 … children’s free play has been continually declining, at least partly because adults have exerted ever-increasing control over children’s activities,” says the author Peter Gray, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology (emeritus) at Boston College. Gray defines “free play” as play a child undertakes him- or her-self and which is self-directed and an end in itself, rather than part of some organized activity.

Gray describes this kind of unstructured, freely-chosen play as a testing ground for life. It provides critical life experiences without which young children cannot develop into confident and competent adults. Gray’s article is meant to serve as a wake-up call regarding the effects of lost play, and he believes that lack of childhood free play time is a huge loss that must be addressed for the sake of our children and society.

Five Ways Play Benefits Children:

1. Play gives children a chance to find and develop a connection to their own self-identified and self-guided interests.

As they choose the activities that make up free play, kids learn to direct themselves and pursue and elaborate on their interests in a way that can sustain them throughout life. Gray notes that: “…in school, children work for grades and praise and in adult-directed sports, they work for praise and trophies…. In free play, children do what they want to do, and the learning and psychological growth that results are byproducts, not conscious goals of the activity.”

“Children who do not have the opportunity to control their own actions [ed note: who are given no freedom from supervision or evaluation], to make and follow through on their own decisions, to solve their own problems, and to learn how to follow rules in the course of play grow up feeling that they are not in control of their own lives and fate. They grow up feeling that they are dependent on luck and on the goodwill and whims of others….”

3. Children learn to handle their emotions, including anger and fear, during play.

In free play, children put themselves into both physically and socially challenging situations and learn to control the emotions that arise from these stressors. They role play, swing, slide, and climb trees … and “such activities are fun to the degree that they are moderately frightening … nobody but the child himself or herself knows the right dose.”

Gray suggests that the reduced ability to regulate emotions may be a key factor in the development of some anxiety disorders. “Individuals suffering from anxiety disorders describe losing emotional control as one of their greatest fears. They are afraid of their own fear, and therefore small degrees of fear generated by mildly threatening situations lead to high degrees of fear generated by the person’s fear of losing control.” Adults who did not have the opportunity to experience and cope with moderately challenging emotional situations during play are more at risk for feeling anxious and overwhelmed by emotion-provoking situations in adult life.

5. Most importantly, play is a source of happiness.

When children are asked about the activities that bring them happiness, they say they are happier when playing with friends than in any other situation. Perhaps you felt this way when remembering your own childhood play experiences at the beginning of this article.

Gray sees the loss of play time as a double whammy: we have not only taken away the joys of free play, we have replaced them with emotionally stressful activities. “[A]s a society, we have come to the conclusion that to protect children from danger and to educate them, we must deprive them of the very activity that makes them happiest and place them for ever more hours in settings where they are more or less continually directed and evaluated by adults, setting almost designed to produce anxiety and depression.”