What Happens When We Substitute Supervised Activities for Play

Readers — One of the fundamentals of Free-Range Kids is that kids are not in constant need of adult supervision. That includes adult-supervised enrichment. Some enrichment is fine — better than fine, it’s good! But replacing all free time with  adult-led activities is like replacing all whole grains with enriched white flour. At some point in society, we thought that was for the best. It was new and improved!

Now we are rethinking it. That’s why I love the work of Peter Gray, author of Free to Learn. I also appreciate this essay, “The Kids Don’t Play Anymore,”  by Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente. She’s disturbed by the fact she doesn’t see kids outside anymore.

“Play is a powerful way to impart social skills,” writes Peter Gray, an evolutionary psychologist who believes children’s lives have become ruinously regimented. Play also teaches children how to manage intense negative emotions, such as fear and anger, and to test themselves by taking manageable risks. Unstructured and unsupervised (oh, horrors!) play is crucial for their development.

“In play, children make their own decisions and solve their own problems,” Prof. Gray writes. “In adult-directed settings, children are weak and vulnerable. In play, they are strong and powerful. The play world is the child’s practice world for being an adult.” [Read the whole essay HERE.] 

Play is starting to become the new cure-all for what ails kids. But unlike other cure-alls, it’s not a fad. It’s ancient. It’s innate. And it’s like cherries: Something good for kids that they automatically like.

Bring it back! maybe even starting today! – L.


Kids need to organize their own games, too.

Kids need to organize their own games, too.

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14 Responses to What Happens When We Substitute Supervised Activities for Play

  1. Marianne November 17, 2013 at 9:29 am #

    I’m planning a birthday party for my 7 year old at our house. Pin the tail on the donkey and cake are the only planned activities. So much easier than over thinking it, over involving myself, and interfering with their fun! We’re so excited to take it down a few notches from these over the top parties!

  2. Eden November 17, 2013 at 11:17 am #

    I did my dissertation research on outdoor play in a natural open space area and preschool children. This was a school setting and the four teachers did not often intervene in the play. What I found was incredible! The children were extremely competent problem solvers and had high agency and power with both the teachers and each other.

  3. anonymous this time November 17, 2013 at 6:02 pm #

    At a hockey tournament last weekend, where EVERYTHING was adult-organized, and the only “toy” these grade 6 and 7 boys brought along was a goddamned playstation or xbox or some crap like that with games where everyone is machine gunning each other to death, some kids self-organized into a little group playing soccer with a wiffle ball in the hallway,

    The hotel management requested that our group avail ourselves of the “breakfast room” that was not in use in the off hours, in order to have a “common area” out of the way of other guests. I jumped on it!

    I guided the three or four “playful” kids into that room, and soon after, others joined. Soon enough, the whole team was there, and you know what they decided to play? MUSICAL CHAIRS. I kid you not. One boy sang “Pop goes the Weasel” while the others paraded around the chairs. It devolved into the WWF version of the game, but I just sat as the lone adult in the corner, focused on my own game (cup stacking, a decidedly low-tech endeavour), letting them whoop and holler and PLAY.

    More parents trickled in, and I was able to calm them into submission as they drank their wine. We looked at the kids as though viewing wild animals, and commenting on just how happy they seemed. “This is what they need in their lives,” I told the parents. “More of this. A lot more of this. Hockey is fine, but they need at least as mud of this as they do organized activities that adults lead.”

    Some kids were getting called off to eat by their parents, and they were crushed, promising, “I’ll be back right after dinner!” Well, I commented, how often does anyone hear THAT anymore? I realized that the thing to do was order in Chinese so the kids could keep on playing and building community. Amazing how eager these parents were to “Take responsibility for my own kid” and whisk them off to some isolated restaurant meal rather than join forces with other parents, but I taught them about that, too. “Let’s just order a few plates of whatever and they’ll eat it. We can settle up later.”

    After a good two or three hours of games, sweating and smiles, the party broke up and the team played the next morning, their last game of the tournament. They were a different team. Their passing game had improved exponentially. All of us in the stands commented about how much more cooperative they all seemed to be.

    Coincidence? I think not.

  4. Lin November 17, 2013 at 9:18 pm #

    A while back I did some research into the ability of young kids to learn how to cross roads. And I came across one study from the 70s or 80s – which was way more comprehensive than any of the more recent ones – that used carefully orchestrated road crossing simulations to observe kids’ accuracy and focus.

    They discovered that when their parents were watching nearby – not helping or giving advice, just watching – the kids made way more mistakes than when they were not being watched!

    So yes, it makes a difference to the kids. To not feel watched by the compulsive problem solvers who call themselves their parents!

  5. Reziac November 17, 2013 at 9:24 pm #

    The same nonsense is making its way into animal husbandry. Now a dog can’t just play; they have to get ‘enriched’ play, with special toys. Left to their own inclinations, what do they do? chew up the special toys, and go back to playing with random sticks and tincans.

  6. K November 17, 2013 at 10:16 pm #

    @Lin- Last week I went on my first solo drive after getting my licence. I think that the most important factor in helping me drive solo was having walked to school because that gave me the confidence to be able to handle traffic etc. on my own. If I’d never had the opportunity to walk to school on my own, I think that driving solo would be a much scarier experience.

    This is kind of unrelated, but it’s funny so I want to share this anyway. In the second last week of our final year of high school (Year 12), our form teacher let us go to some cafes situated between our school and a train station that about 50% of us go to every day (another 40% take the train from one of the other two nearby stations, while the remaining 10% either take the bus or drive/get driven home- only a very small number live close enough to walk). Possibly to avoid getting into huge trouble if anything happened to us, she told us that we could go to any cafe in the vicinity or walk back to school, but we had to stay in groups of 4 even though quite a large number of us walk that route every day, sometimes with friends, but sometimes *gasp* alone. My friends and I laughed, got some food, and walked back to school in a group of 3 like the rebels that we are.

    One of the other form groups (also in Year 12) were walking past our form just as our teacher said that we had to stay in groups of 4. One of my friends is in that form group and she said that they were making so many jokes about us: “You gotta stay in your 4!” “Guys, you don’t want to know what happens if you lose your 4!”

  7. ifsogirl November 17, 2013 at 11:21 pm #

    I encourage my kids to play unsupervised as much as possible lol. The last few projects they created on thier own: blanket fort they made outside by throwing blankets over the low hanging branches on trees, laser obstacle course made from yarn, pink for lasers, black for alarms, they sold custom drawn colouring pages to other kids on the block, and many others I can’t remember or I don’t know about because they were unsupervised. Kids are creative and not every waking moment needs to be and “enriched” moment. I believe boredom is good for kids, forces them to figure out how to entertain themselves on their own, teaches them to be responsible for their own happiness, that it’s not someone elses job to make sure you are entertained and enjoying yourself.

  8. Stephanie November 18, 2013 at 12:35 am #

    Marianne, that’s how I run my kids’ parties too. Few to no planned activities, go have fun, kids, while the adults present sit around and talk. I still remember the comment I got from one mom at my oldest daughter’s 5th birthday party about how we hadn’t even bothered to hire a princess or other character for the party. It was her daughter who came up to me at the school the next day declaring it the “best party ever.” I think that was because I let the kids have fun with their own ideas.

  9. lollipoplover November 18, 2013 at 10:29 am #

    What stuck out to me in this article is when they said a parent is no longer a noun but a verb. So many parents are active planners in their children’s activities (the “busy, busy, busy” folks) and the child-led unstructured time becomes foreign. Playing with friends was the highlight of my childhood so I can only hope it will be for my kids.

    We do sports seasonally and try not to get sucked into the vortex of doing too much. We let the kids guide us with what they’re interested in and discuss costs/family budget. Down time is critical for kids. They need play and have fun with kids their own age (and mix with other ages) to learn how to get along with others independent of their parents. I can’t imagine a childhood without free play.

  10. Weeks in advance, I planned a “Skylsnders” themed birthday party for my son, turning 7, and it included pin the “eyeball” on Eyebrawl, one of the Skylanders’ characters and refreshments themed with the Skylanders’ characters (Prism Break pretzels, Pop Thorn Pop Corn, Hot Dog Chompies, etc.). At the end of the day, the most fun my son and his buddies had was . . . playing hide and seek / tag running around the house and in and out into the yard! Yep, plan all you want, parents, kids just want to be kids and I loved it for his friends and for him!

  11. Havva November 18, 2013 at 1:21 pm #

    @ anonymous this time
    Sounds like you did a great thing for the kids and their parents. Hopefully some of this translates to more time with friends outside of such trips.

    I’m really wondering the impact of someone in ‘authority’ providing pushes toward freeing kids to play. Unfortunately of course most ‘authority’ is pushing for less free time and more supervision.

    I’m in the midst of watching an interesting transition with the (former?) helicopter parents who live across the street from me. I’ve mentioned before that on nice days I’ve seen them providing stricter rules and supervision for their elementary age kids than I feel is necessary for my 2 year old. They were a little looser with the oldest, a middle school age girl, she could ride her bike in the street a good 4 houses down the road under dad’s watchful supervision.

    Anyhow, the dad applied for “a position of trust in the US government” and so an agent was sent to our neighborhood to interview the neighbors about him. I didn’t feel like I could say much of use because the one time I tried to introduce myself they jumped between me/my husband and the kids like we were going to snatch them rather than say hello. I took that as a flashing keep away sign, and they made no effort to say hello since.

    I mentioned this and some of the helicoptering to the people at work who I had alert to my meeting with the agent. They all said that was really strange behavior. The agent made some funny faces at the parenting behaviors I had witnessed and called them “strict.”

    Anyhow a few weeks after the interview I woke from a nap to the sound of shouting, popping noises, and riotous laughter. The middle child and his friends (I’d never seen him with friends before) were putting cherry bombs into the street and laughing as passing cars detonated them! Perhaps not the best behavior, but lord was I happy to see him out with friends. Since then I have seen the youngest and middle walking together (they were being silly, not like when mom walked with them). On several occasions, I’ve seen the middle child and his large group of friends racing circles around the outside of the house. It’s like a switch was flipped. It’s good to see the kids playing. I’ve never seen them so energized, what passed as ‘play’ before just looked like an exercise regimen compared to their play now.

  12. Papilio November 18, 2013 at 4:10 pm #

    “I think that the most important factor in helping me drive solo was having walked to school because that gave me the confidence to be able to handle traffic etc. on my own.”

    That’s another good reason to facilitate cycling. Negotiating with motorists, other cyclists and pedestrians, indicating turns, positioning on the middle of the road when preparing for a left turn, practising the rules of the road and who gets to go first and why – I all learned that from a cyclist’s perspective (theory traffic lessons in elementary school!), cycling through the through-traffic-free 30kph (19mph) streets in my neighborhood.

  13. Sara Covatta November 19, 2013 at 2:34 pm #

    This is a direct quote from the Superintendent of schools where my daughter currently attends Kindergarten. We will NOT be staying in this school district, and here is just one of the glaring reasons. Here is what I copied and pasted from the email he sent to me and my husband when we asked about why they are only getting 1 outdoor recess (after lunch) per day for full day Kindergarten…..

    The instructional day is designed to be developmentally appropriate at each grade level. “Recess” provides a break from instructional activities, but it’s lack of structure is not always most developmentally appropriate for our youngest students. There are a variety of ways to provide variety and student directed activity during the classroom day, including center based learning time, “choice” time, and structured social time with the teacher. In addition, the need for movement and gross motor development is met through twice weekly scheduled P.E. classes, as well as weekly music and Spanish classes that include rhythm and movement activities. In many places that report that all kindergarten classes get “two recesses” they do not have such programs at the kindergarten level.

  14. Scott November 20, 2013 at 10:14 am #

    I think some of these comments apply more to upper-middle class families than to poor ones, more as a warning to helicopter parents than a generalized rule for everybody. Kids do need structure, just not micromanaging.

    I’ve lived for 25 years in a neighborhood that used to be flat-out ghetto but now is beginning to gentrify. Many of the kids I’ve known here over the years suffer from extreme neglect. They’re “spoiled” not because their parents give them everything they want but because their parents are essentially absent, or worse, drunkards or criminals, and nobody imposes ANY restraints whatsoever. Nobody ever says “no” – they make their own rules and their own way. They have tons of free time to play and virtually zero structured activities outside of school, but crave adult attention to an almost absurd degree. By their teens, many of those whose free play is maximized in that way have ruined their lives – the boys in jail and the girls pregnant and dropping out of school. In a couple of families I could name, I’ve seen the cycle repeat over two generations.

    We recently hosted a birthday party for my 7-year old granddaughter that was attended by mostly neighborhood kids and my wife planned several games to keep them occupied – the most popular was picking up marbles out of a kiddie pool with their bare feet and placing them in a bowl floating on top of the water, trying not to let it tip. To a person, with the exception of my wife and I, the adults who came ignored the kids completely and most of them drank (BYOB – we didn’t provide booze at a 7-year old’s b-day party), some of them to the point of wobbling, slurred intoxication.

    Some of these kids I’ve seen exhibit terrible, destructive behavior when left to their own devices on the streetcorner – including bullying, property destruction and theft – but were so thrilled to have an adult engage with them they enthusiastically, joyously participated in the prepared activities. A couple of them cried and wailed when it was time to go, begging to stay and clinging to my wife like a long-lost parent. They (and I) knew that when they went home, their own parents would turn on the TV, pop a beer (or light a joint) and ignore them; they’d be lucky if anyone made them supper. A number of them thereafter have repeatedly, insistently asked to come back and the youngun’s grandma achieved near rock-star status among several little girls, notably the ones who are essentially neglected at home. They clearly crave adult attention, even if it means accepting rules and discipline to which they’re utterly unaccustomed.

    I don’t advocate helicopter parenting and despise all the “stranger danger” nonsense. I want my granddaughter to be brave and independent, unafraid to make her own way in the world. But I also think there’s a balance to be had. I don’t think kids’ time needs to be scheduled moment to moment, but let’s not understate the need for parental involvement. Don’t interfere with their fun, but also don’t underestimate the importance of your own influence.