The Decline of Unstructured Play and the Rise of Backseat Children

The Decline of Unstructured Play

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Dr. Michael Patte

With Dr. Michael Patte

For past generations, play was a child-initiated, open-ended activity. But for many kids today, play has become adult-directed and highly structured, and has a significant impact on children’s physical, cognitive, social and emotional growth. Michael Patte, a professor of education at Bloomsburg University, talks about this shift and why unstructured play is such an important part of kids’ development.

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.).

“Recent research suggests that children should experience twice as much unstructured time as structured play experiences.”

Lia Karsten, a professor of urban geographies at the University of Amsterdam, argues that this change has transformed children from active participants to “backseat children” who are passively escorted from one structured activity to the next by their parents. The tension between a parent’s desire for control and a child’s desire for freedom has been playing out for thousands of years, but today’s parents seem to be gripping a bit tighter than any time in the recent past.

Unstructured play is a set of activities that children dream up on their own without adult intervention. This type of play rarely has predetermined goals or objectives but instead allows children to create their own rules and establish their own limits. Recent research suggests that children should experience twice as much unstructured time as structured play experiences and touts the benefits of unstructured play on whole child development:

  • It provides opportunities for children to master elements of the world on their own terms.
  • It develops self-determination, self-esteem, and the ability to self-regulate — all vital elements of emotional development.
  • It fosters social competence, respect for rules, self-discipline, aggression control, problem solving skills, leadership development, conflict resolution, and playing by the rules.
  • It stimulates the senses and allows children to discover the different textures and elements in the world.
  • It provides fertile ground to cultivate creativity and imagination.
  • It enhances cognitive understandings.
  • It builds strength, coordination and cardiovascular fitness and moderates childhood obesity and its associated health complications.
  • It sees boredom as a vehicle for children to create their own happiness, enhance inventiveness, and develop self-reliance.

There are a variety of societal factors that are limiting opportunities for unstructured play in America, with fear being most prominent among them. Due in part to fear, children are afforded fewer opportunities to play at home and at school today than in the past. However, there are reasons for optimism as well. Many prominent professional organizations advocate the importance of play and current research across multiple disciplines documents the benefits of unstructured play on whole child development. Striking a balance between structured and unstructured play is the key to whole child development in the 21st century.

Michael Patte, Ph.D., is a professor of education who prepares undergraduate and graduate students for careers in education. During his 20-year career in education he developed an interest in the research fields of creativity, child development and play and has shared his scholarship through publications, international and national conference presentations, and advocacy projects. Dr. Patte is a Distinguished Fulbright Scholar, Co-editor of the International Journal of Play, past president of The Association for the Study of Play, board member of The International Council for Children’s Play, and a member of the Pennsylvania Governor’s Early Learning Council, responsible for planning the expansion of effective early learning and development services for Pennsylvania’s young children and families.

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