Unstructured Play - Research supports...
The Serious Need for Play
Free, imaginative play is crucial for normal social, emotional and cognitive development. It makes us better adjusted, smarter and less stressed
- Childhood play is crucial for social, emotional and cognitive development.
- Imaginative and rambunctious "free play," as opposed to games or structured activities, is the most essential type.
- Kids and animals that do not play when they are young may grow into anxious, socially maladjusted adults.
Brown did not know which factor was more important. But in the 42 years since, he has interviewed some 6,000 people about their childhoods, and his data suggest that a lack of opportunities for unstructured, imaginative play can keep children from growing into happy, well-adjusted adults. "Free play," as scientists call it, is critical for becoming socially adept, coping with stress and building cognitive skills such as problem solving. Research into animal behavior confirms play's benefits and establishes its evolutionary importance: ultimately, play may provide animals (including humans) with skills that will help them survive and reproduce.
Most psychologists agree that play affords benefits that last through adulthood, but they do not always agree on the extent to which a lack of play harms kids—particularly because, in the past, few children grew up without ample frolicking time. But today free play may be losing its standing as a staple of youth. According to a paper published in 2005 in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, children’s free-play time dropped by a quarter between 1981 and 1997. Concerned about getting their kids into the right colleges, parents are sacrificing playtime for more structured activities. As early as preschool, youngsters' after-school hours are now being filled with music lessons and sports— reducing time for the type of imaginative and rambunctious cavorting that fosters creativity and cooperation.
A handful of studies support Brown's conviction that a playdeprived childhood disrupts normal social, emotional and cognitive development in humans and animals. He and other psychologists worry that limiting free play in kids may result in a generation of anxious, unhappy and socially maladjusted adults. "The consequence of a life that is seriously playdeprived is serious stuff," Brown says. But it is never too late to start: play also promotes the continued mental and physical well-being of adults.
Worries over the demise of play began surfacing as far back as 1961, when the International Play Association was founded in Denmark to protect, preserve and promote play as a fundamental right for all children. But the idea became more popular a little over a decade ago, when many more nonprofit foundations—such as the National Institute for Play in Carmel Valley, Calif., started by Brown, and other organizations, including the Alliance for Childhood and the Association for the Study of Play—began forming around the globe to promote the value of play and to raise concerns over its demise.