If you want to document a typical week in the life of any American child today, just flip open mom’s family planner and peer inside. The heavy schedule of daily activities leaves little time for the unstructured play of yesteryear and this can have serious consequences for children.
Howard Chudacoff, a professor of urban studies at Brown University, identifies place, things, and time as three societal changes that impact children’s unstructured play. The place changes include shifts from informal, natural play spaces to contrived playgrounds, adult-directed activities, and play within the home. Playthings have shifted from homemade and improvised toys to educational, manufactured, and electronic choices. Time devoted to children’s play has fluctuated in America over the past century and common barriers limiting unstructured play today include an extended school day, an overemphasis on academic achievement, and parental fear for child safety.
When I was a child in the late 1960s and early 1970s my parents provided the time, space, and freedom to play. Unstructured time for play was granted everyday after school and on weekends all year long from dawn until dusk. Space for play was wide-ranging and boundaries were always being negotiated. Our play most often took place outside and beyond the watchful eyes of parents, providing for the three “frees": free of charge, free to choose, and free to come and go as we pleased. Wandering hoards of children were a common sight in my little part of the world.
Peter Gray, author of Free to learn: Why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life, paints a similar picture of his childhood play experiences in the 1950s: “When I was a child in the 1950s my friends and I played in mixed-aged neighborhood groups almost every day after school until dark. We played all weekend and all summer long. We had time to explore in all sorts of ways, and also time to be bored and figure out how to overcome boredom, time to get into trouble and find our way out of it, time to day dream, time to immerse ourselves in hobbies, and time to read comics. What I learned through my play has been far more valuable to my adult life than what I learnt in school.”
When viewed from a present-day perspective, these childhood play experiences stand in stark contrast to those of children today. The amount of time that children spend in unstructured free play today is in decline. Common reasons for the decline include safety concerns (stranger danger, crime, traffic), eroding social capital, increasing time spent in school, a rising belief that childhood is a time for resume building , and an overemphasis on structured activities (sports, clubs, etc.).