Let the children play

April 2, 2011

American Academy of Pediatrics issued a clinical report in 2006 about the importance of play that stated that play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth. The report notes that despite the benefits several factors have reduced time available for play.

Children have less free playtime than before

Free playtime is in decline in countries all over the World. Japanese photographer Keiki Haginoya decided in 1979 to document children at play on the streets of Tokyo. He intended to make it his life’s work but he had to stop after just 17 years: there were no children playing on the streets any more.

The decline in free playtime has started decades ago. Hillary Burdette and Robert Whitaker reported in a paper published in 2005 in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine that free playtime in US had decreased by 25 % between 1981 and 1997. The University of Sydney Popping the Bubblewrap project reports that the trend is similar in Australia.

The National Institute of Play divides play into different patterns, some of which are body play & movement, social play, imaginative play, creative play, and storytelling. Playing in nature has been shown to be especially beneficial to mental and physical well being. With over 50 % of the World population living in cities, children in every continent have fewer opportunities to experience nature.

Children spend less time outdoors than before

In a 2008 survey the Outdoor Foundation found out that from 2006 to 2007 there was an 11 % drop in outdoor activities among children ages 6 to 17 in US. Over 30% of children did not take part in any outdoor activities during the whole year.

In her study in 2004 Rhonda Clements asked 830 mothers how their children play outdoors compared to how the mothers themselves played outdoors when they were children. Outdoor playtime had decreased dramatically. Especially time spent in made-up imaginative game and games using child-initiated rules had halved.

According to Natural England 40 % of children played in natural places in 1970 but only 10 % do so today. The Ethiopian newspaper The Daily Monitor had an article in 2007 about the need to get children out of the house and noted that many Ethiopians will have reached adulthood far removed from outdoor experiences.

Even in Finland – where 86 % of the land is forest – nursery schools have been facing a new kind of problem. Some children have problems in the forest excursions because they have always walked on a flat surface. One nursery school built an indoor forest trail where children can practice walking before going – for the first time in their lives – to a real forest.

Creativity has been declining

Last summer Newsweek published an article titled “The Creativity Crisis”, which discussed the decline of creativity among children in United States. The article references work by Kyung-Hee Kim, an assistant professor in William & Mary’s School of Education.

Last month Encyclopædia Britannica’s Britannica Blog interviewed Kim and she gave specific figures for the decline in different subscales of the Torrace Test of Creative Thinking.  All subscales have measured declining creativity for the last 20 years with the pace of decline accelerating. The most striking decline was in Elaboration (ability to develop and elaborate upon ideas and detailed and reflective thinking and motivation to be creative). Scores in Elaboration decreased by over 36 % from 1984 to 2008.

Kim is not aware of any research study specifically addressing the topic of declining creativity. One possible explanation, according to Kim, is time spent in front of televisions and computers instead of playing outside or exploring the outside world.

In the summer I was reading the book “Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul” by M.D. Stuart Brown and Christopher Vaughan. The authors tell a story about Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

In the late nineties the engineers and scientists who put men on the moon and built all other major components of manned and unmanned space missions started to retire. The managers found out that top graduates from top universities, like MIT and Stanford, were generally not as good as the older generation when it came to coping with practical difficulties in complex problems. The managers started to look for explanations.

It turned out that all of the old engineers had played with their hands and built things when they were young but only some of the new engineers. Those of the new workers who had played with their hands were better at the kind of problem solving that management sought.

Why is this important?

Nothing like this has ever happened before. The amount of play has been in decline all over the World and children spend less time in nature than ever before. How can the future generations care about nature if they have never experienced it themselves? Even more important than connecting with nature, being creative, getting along with others, or any other benefits of play is the happiness that play provides. Children are happy when they play and playtime with friends and family provided the most lasting childhood memories for us who are parents today. We should try to provide those memories also for our children.