Fun & Games

Parents Are Robbing Children Of One Essential Developmental Tool

Independent play has taken a nosedive since the 1980s — and so has kids’ mental health.

A boy on a tablet while half-lying under a couch that a parent is sitting on.
Frank Herholdt/Getty

After the movie “Fly Away Home'' was released in 1996, my friend Liz and I became obsessed with the idea of raising baby chicks. Since geese were too scary, we would stalk ducks for hours instead, waiting for them to lay eggs — only to be faced with the moral dilemma of whether we should kidnap their potentially adorable offspring. Without our parents micromanaging our sense of right and wrong, our consciences would eventually win out. We would leave the nests alone, and return home before dinner after a long day of fresh air.

According to play researcher Peter Gray, this was just a few years before independent play essentially disappeared from children's lives. “The only times and places when children have been less free than they are today in our culture have been during times of child slavery and round-the-clock, 7-day-a-week child labor of the Industrial Age,” Gray says.

After tracking the death of independent play for decades, in a new paper published in the Journal of Pediatrics, Gray and his colleagues claim that it has led to the significant increase in mental health problems among children and adolescents, since they began being stripped of their independence and free time in the 1980s. Due to an overemphasis on concerns of child safety and academic achievement, Gray and his team found that between the 1980s and 2000, the amount of time children between the ages of 6 and 8 spend in school or doing homework increased by 11.5 hours. “That’s like adding a day and a half to an adult’s work week.”

Understandably, that would mess with your mental health too. But like a frog in boiling water, these changes for children slowly occurred over two decades, and “people accepted it when they should not have,” Gray explained.

To better understand what children have lost and how parents can help them get it back, Fatherly sat down with Gray to find out more about how play has slipped away from all of us. Here are some ways all parents can do to give their kids back the freedom they lost.

Focus On Learning — Not Achievement

“Historically, children were playing and exploring largely on their own. So this idea that children are fragile creatures that need to be guarded, that they’re not responsible enough to do things independently — this is a new idea that’s been growing in the United States and some other nations over the past few decades.

“There were a few things that happened in the 1980s that changed the way our culture treats children and really initiated the trend towards what we have now. The first thing that happened was a book was published that condemned our school system at the time. A Nation at Risk made the claim that our students are not learning as much as children in East Asian countries are learning, according to standardized testing.

“That set in motion changes in schooling that have occurred since the beginning of the 1980s. It meant teachers, along with principals and superintendents, began to be evaluated based on the children’s test scores. This led to dramatic changes in schools. Over several decades, there was a five-week increase in the amount of time children are in schools. The homework greatly increased, even in elementary schools, even in Kindergarten. This was all a result of the belief that we were somehow falling behind.

“It’s taking time away from children, who are spending more and more time at school and doing homework. And it’s also changing the nature of the parent-child relationship. The parent becomes concerned about the child’s school achievement, which interferes with the kinds of things parents should be concerned about: Is this child happy? Is this child learning how to do chores around the house? Is this child learning how to deal with the real world?”

Interrogate The Facts Behind Your Safety Fears

“There was a very tragic incident, and it was one incident out of millions and millions of children in the United States who were out there playing and exploring freely. One 6-year-old boy was abducted in a gruesome way. And of course, the only way parents could get any meaning out of it was to have a campaign for child safety.

“It wasn’t too long after this that you started to hear public service announcements on the radio saying, “Do you know where your children are?” The implication is that if you don’t know where your children are, then you’re a negligent parent. This was never the case before. Parents didn’t necessarily want to know where children were; they just wanted them out of the house. Similarly, children didn’t want their parents to know; they had their own private lives, and in many ways that’s a good thing.

“This is when stranger danger became common. Children were taught not to speak to strangers, to be wary of strangers. I’m an adult male in this society, and I study play. I used to be able to go to playgrounds and watch children play. Now if I'm at a playground watching children play, I’m suspect. I would worry about someone calling the police. And that is because this paranoia developed and is still present.

“The police and Child Protective Services have a lot of discretion to decide when a parent is being negligent. Parents are being arrested in some cases for what was absolutely normal not that long ago, because their child was seen playing outside without an adult. The way protective services work in most states is that if someone calls them, they have to visit, and if the police are called, they have to go. So you have the police coming, sometimes the parent is arrested, sometimes not. And the child is seeing all of this.

“So even for parents who know that it’s safe for their child to be out, and it’s good for them, they’re afraid of being arrested. That’s the state we’re in.”

Give Kids More Independence — As Much As You Can

“That’s true for all of us, but for us as adults, we have a lot more freedom in our jobs than children have in school. We can come and go. Children are more or less incarcerated at school, and at home they’re on house arrest because they’re not free to go out unless there’s an adult with them.

“But independent activity away from adults is extremely important for children. Adults inevitably interfere with children’s play. And even with the best adults, children don’t feel comfortable playing how they want to play.

“Part of the reasons why play evolved and why children have such a strong drive for it, is that it is how children learn to manage themselves. Play is how children learn to solve their own problems, control their own activities, and discover what they love to do, as opposed to what other people are trying to make them do. It's how they develop skills; it’s how they make friends.

“These are all extremely important parts of child development, and when we deprive children of the opportunity to play without adult intervention and control, we are really depriving them of the opportunity to learn how to control their lives.”

Don’t Blame Social Media And Screen Time — But Also Don’t Give Into Them

“Almost no adults want to admit the things I’m saying. I think on some level, everybody knows it, but no one wants to admit it. So what do we do? We say the problem is technology, it’s social media. You see all kinds of complaints and headlines about this.

“But here’s the way I look at what’s happened: We don’t allow children to get together in the real world, so the only way they can get together is online. And then we blame them for being online, and we blame technology for why children aren’t getting together. But the truth of the matter is that we’re not allowing children to get together the way they want to get together, which is away from adults.

“The biggest realistic challenge for parents today is how to create conditions where your child can play, explore, and make friends away from adult control. That’s very hard to do, but people have done it. But it takes some effort.

“If a parent sends their children out, they probably won’t find anyone to play with. Aside from the fact that some neighbor might call and report it, children are not attracted to the great outdoors as much as we wish they might be. They’re attracted to other children. So if there are no children to play with, they’re going to want to come back in. Or if they have a smartphone, they’re going to want to get on that phone, because then they can interact with their friends.

“The challenge is to figure out a way where children are going to be out there, in a group, on a regular basis. Ideally it’s the same children regularly, because it’s important to make friends and have stable friendships over time. Unfortunately, if you take your child to the park, and it’s a different group of kids every time, that’s not really the same as making friends and figuring out long-term ways to play.”

Open Your Doors To The Neighborhood Kids

“There was a book written over 10 years ago called “Playborhood,” written by Mike Lanza, who describes what he did in his neighborhood in California. He devotes different chapters to how they solved the problem in seven quite different neighborhoods.

“He lived in an upper-middle class area, and he had one young son who he wanted to have the same opportunities to play with neighborhood kids as he had growing up. And he knew there were kids living there, because he would see them waiting for the bus with their parents guarding them. But other than that, he never saw them. And he thought, what can I do to get these kids outside playing with other kids? So he turned his front yard into a kind of a local park. He had a small basketball court on the driveway, a fountain for water play, a really nice sandbox, and other things that would attract kids of different ages. He put this all in the front yard instead of the backyard, so no matter what, you couldn’t help but see the Lanzas out there playing.

“When people would walk by and comment on the yard, he would say, “Your kids are always welcome to come over and play, even if we’re not here.” And eventually kids started playing, and he had two more sons who grew up in a neighborhood where kids play. As time went on, parents became more trusting and these kids were growing up with a lot more freedom than other kids in America.

“In that book, Lanza also describes environments that were very different from his. There is a chapter on what parents in a low-income housing project did. They were living in an area where there truly is some danger for kids outdoors. They were on a busy street in a neighborhood where there was some gun violence. But there were parents who regretted that they just couldn’t send their kids out to play as they did when they were young. So they got together and figured out a way to do it. They got the city to close off the street for certain hours after school, with the agreement that they would all send their kids out to play on that street during those hours. And to make it safe, there would be a couple of grandmothers who were living in the housing project that would sit out there to drive away drug pushers, and make sure it was safe in that sense.

“This problem can be solved no matter where you live or what situation you’re in, but it requires effort. It requires an understanding that it’s worth the effort to do this. And it generally requires somehow getting to know your neighbors, and convincing them that this is important for their kids. It’s not that hard to convince them if you can show them a way to do this that’s safe enough.”