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Is Free Play Too Free for Its Own Good?

The Surgeon General is right: Loneliness is a massive problem. It’s not just sad, it’s unhealthy. So let’s look at the quickest, easiest way to solve it, at least among kids.

Get them playing. Really playing — organizing games, working through arguments, sometimes yelling, sometimes laughing — without an adult fast-forwarding through all of that.

Playing is the most organic way to make a friend. As Let Grow co-founder Peter Gray points out: Almost by definition, when you’re a kid: a friend is someone you play with.

Why the pricier option wins.

But since play has been pretty much replaced by adult-run activities (and homework), we need to literally create a play sanctuary — a time and place where kids of all ages are guaranteed a chance to JUST PLAY. Otherwise it won’t happen. It’s like the way housing developments encroach on the local woods — pretty soon there’s no woods left. The housing developments have money behind them. The trees are just trees.

Similarly, most kid programs have someone running them, so they represent someone’s salary and perhaps even a business. That someone, or business, naturally must market their program. So they do. “This will make your kid smart! Or talented! Or scholarship-eligible! Or school-ready!”

The problem with playing is that free play is too free for its own survival.

Kids need a “child-life” preserve.

So: Just as we have “wildlife preserves,” where those in power guarantee that something ancient and precious will not be destroyed, we also need to guarantee kids a “child-life preserve.” That is, guarantee a time and place when children, no less than gazelles and hippos, can play as — dare we say it? — nature intended. Because when you’re playing, you’re developing all the skills (compromise, communication, “reading” people, getting buy-in, empathy, creativity) that you need to become a successful human. A less-likely-to-be-lonely human.

And the byproduct of all that playing is…fun. Fun arises from playing.

The power of plain old fun.

But fun isn’t what play is really about, developmentally. The pursuit of fun is just what gets kids going. It’s because play is fun that kids are willing to do all the hard stuff of regulating themselves, planning, rule-making, and frustration-tolerating to get to the point where the fun finally happens. Fun is the spoonful of sugar. The “medicine” going down is all the lessons in socialization. It’s all the self-control and resourcefulness it takes to make something fun happen…unless an adult is organizing it FOR the kids.

At which point, it’s just the sugar.

So what we need is a place where kids can pursue fun and make it happen without adults stepping in. When adults take charge, they skip over the hard, annoying stuff — the squabbling and compromising that the kids would otherwise have to do. That means the kids don’t get as much chance to practice the skills of getting along. The road ahead is bumpier.

Birds do it, bees do it. (Play, that is.)

In short: To raise a generation of happy, healthy kids, we can’t keep denying them the chance to make their own fun. Free play is the greatest engine for health, joy, connection, and learning. That’s why all animals do it.

Except, increasingly, us.

Lonely, sad us.

How can you create a “child-life sanctuary” full of play?

If you’re lucky, you live in a place where you can get your neighbors to agree to send their kids out to have fun together. Maybe each afternoon one parent takes a turn sitting outside, like a lifeguard.

If that’s not happening, you might see if your school would consider starting a Let Grow Play Club in the fall, or during its summer program (it’s never too late!). Here’s our FREE implementation guide for schools.

Free play may be too free for its own good. But it’s also priceless.

4 Responses to Is Free Play Too Free for Its Own Good?

  1. Mark Headley July 19, 2023 at 10:59 pm #

    Very incisive! I recall as we got more and more guidance counsellors in HS, they increasingly diagnosed, proclaimed the need for more guidance counsellors. A reason why I am skeptical about increasing child AND adult psychologists diagnosing increased mental illness; increased need for more psychologists; their programs, treatments. FWIW, my parents were both Psych majors; I a Psych minor.

    The nature of the Beast, yes. Yet this not new. I saw this dynamic as a kid in school 50 years ago. And yet I still had plenty of Free Play, FUN.

    That’s 50 years since for things to get worse. But we had thousands of years to get worse before then. In some ways, I believe they have improved mightily. Especially for the underclass, targets of bigoted bias.

    Paying to play is much less an option for working class, impoverished families. In Hopatcong, we simply didn’t have facilities for much play I craved. Both Free and organized play. Helpful as many adults were — in cherished ways you have taught me are often disturbingly outlawed now. Well, we had opponents to (child) freedom then too.

    I also made friends — experienced many of the touted benefits of free play — through WORK, responsibilities. Including pet care, extra snow shoveling so we could play basketball, hauling groceries, raking leaves, gathering/preparing firewood and other camping/Scouting tasks, an extensive paper route, a summer job taking care of town parks — with the Supervisor often shuttling to other sites: leaving us to organize ourselves, make friends, have FUN.

    As later in college, my highly rewarding career.

  2. Mak Headley July 19, 2023 at 11:38 pm #

    Much of our bonding was getting to/from school with other kids of various ages. Including helping each other with the challenges of darkness, inclement weather, icy roads, snowbanks pushing us into dangerous streets. We usually became friends navigating these challenges. NOT from play. There was overlap of course, and opportunities for play, misbehavior on school buses, evolution. My recollection, however, is that most started w/ the shared challenges of getting to/fro schools, bus stops. Some friendships remained so. Much as at work. We work together, learning to cooperate. Some of us become friends, have fun together. Some don’t. Esp. with bigotry, bias. Some kids IMO need protection from each other. Some teachers needed my physical protection when subbing from kids poising to attack them. Their bonding took a dark turn.

  3. Mark July 20, 2023 at 10:56 pm #

    I should have added I endorse Lenore’s impressive proposals.Guess I figure that goes without saying. I have none better myself. I don’t think my upbringing would have succeeded, however, without all the work, tasks expected of me. The fun, learning I had doing these. Increasingly unsupervised. With and without other kids. Including with friends I made working my post-college freshman summer at McDonald’s. Very rewarding bonding, proudly accomplishing adventurously — esp. with a selected few guys and gals. I can’t imagine how demoralizing if I kept being assigned homework kids can’t do on their own, nor together with each other. Wretched. No matter what play.

    I believe it would be hard to overstate the benefits of resuming kids mostly getting themselves to/from school. But I have no, NO, idea how to accomplish this — even a wee bit. Beyond any kids in my own care. And even then . . . . I recognize there can be difficulties in bucking peer pressure — for parents and for kids. Anyone?

  4. Common sense July 21, 2023 at 5:48 am #

    The question or problem is when do they get their free play? Most of the kids I work with are so over scheduled they have no time. Between school, homework, after school activities that will “look good on your college application” they don’t have a spare minute. They are never left alone for a moment because goodness knows what can happen(kidnappers,drug dealers ,burn the house down,alien abducti9n?) so they can’t just play. Even the play they have is scheduled and organized because goodness knows if they do it themselves it won’t be “fair” or little Johnny or Susie will ge5 left out and have their feelings hurt. Guess what? That’s part of life, learning how to deal. The par3nts need to step back, let’s the kids do one or two things they are interested in and give them time and space to learn how to deal.