As parents and caregivers, the safety of our children is our highest priority. We ask them to wear their helmets while biking, to look before they leap, and we remind them again and again of the proper procedures for crossing the street. We want them to be safe. That’s reasonable and responsible. But, as it is easy to do, we sometimes go a bit overboard on our efforts to protect our children. In the long run, some of our efforts can backfire.
A piece in the New York Times, entitled, “Can a Playground Be Too Safe?”, the author notes that the tall slides and adventurous climbing structures of our own childhood playgrounds have been replaced by tamer, assumedly more lawsuit-proof equipment. While anyone with memories of asphalt-gnarled elbows or sunny-slide-burned thighs might be grateful for the progress, some researchers question if we’ve taken our safety measures too far, removing the opportunity for valuable play experiences.
Author of Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv, cites that many parents keep children away from playing and exploring outdoors because they’re afraid of kidnappers, serial killers, and other crazies and kooks. Unfortunately, too many children are harmed by adults, but the majority of those incidents involve family members, not strangers. In fact, while our 24-hour news cycle makes us aware of every misdeed around the world, the truth of the matter is that, according to crime statistics, it’s actually safer for children to play outside than it was during many of our own childhoods.
Between our fear of strangers and injuries, our acceptance of push-down academic goals, and our society’s penchant for litigation, play spaces and play time are slowly disappearing from the lives of many children. What is the cost of this trend?
In The American Journal of Play, research professor and prolific writer, Peter Gray compares research showing that the decrease of play in America seems to correlate with an increase of anxiety, depression, and other types of psychopathology. It’s a connection that Gray strengthens with decades worth of research.
While research shows that child-led play is being replaced by school work, TV and computer time, and organized sports activities, concurrent studies also show an increase in psychopathology in children and adolescents. These mental ills include things like anxiety, depression, and even narcissism. While checking for other causes of psychopathology, this research found that American children are actually more anxious now than they were during the Great Depression, World War II, and the cold war.
So what would bring Gray to the conclusion that the connection between a reduction in play and the increase in psychopathology is not just correlation, but actually causation?
The first point that is made in Gray’s article is the move from intrinsic motivation to extrinsic motivation. Free play is purely intrinsically motivated. Children play, explore, pretend, and build because they are driven by an internal sense of wonder and interest. Conversely, many of the organized activities that have replaced children’s free play time over the years are linked to the extrinsic motivation of rewards, praise, or recognition. Many of the activities are chosen and directed by grown-ups and are therefore generally predicated on their goals and objectives and the child often seeks to please the adults and their external standards for performance.
When children learn to care more about the judgments of others than their own internal drive, the result is often depression from not measuring up, or anxiety from the inability to control the perceptions of others.
Among his other reasons for supporting a causal relationship, Gray points out the role that play serves in building important decision-making skills, self-control, social skills, and emotional regulation. Rough and tumble play, for example, while it is often restricted due to fears of injury, actually builds self-control as the implicit rules of “play fighting” include the fact that you can not actually hurt the other players — your friends. This act of going to the line while holding back, requires a great deal of self-control while also recognizing and empathizing with the needs of others.
Perhaps it is the last reason Gray gives for the need for play that is most compelling. “Social play makes children happy, and its absence makes them unhappy.” It doesn’t take a degree in psychology to recognize that if one is deprived of that which makes them most happy, they are more vulnerable to diseases of unhappiness such as anxiety and depression.
Gray isn’t the only one drawing this causal relationship between a lack of free play and an increase in social, emotional, and mental plights. In the New York Times piece, a pair of psychologists is quoted stating that, “Risky play mirrors effective cognitive behavioral therapy of anxiety“. As children take risks, they learn to face and gradually conquer their fears. Continuing, they note, “…we posit that our fear of children being harmed by mostly harmless injuries may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology.”
In his book, Louv suggests that many symptoms of ADHD are caused by, or at least can be effectively treated by the amount of time children spend exploring and playing in nature.
In his conclusion, Peter Gray sums up our misdirected concern for our children:
“Somehow, as a society, we have come to the conclusion that to protect children from danger and to educate them, we must deprive them of the very activity that makes them happiest and place them for ever more hours in settings where they are more or less continually directed and evaluated by adults, settings almost designed to produce anxiety and depression. If we wish children to be happy and to grow up to become socially and emotionally fulfilled and competent adults, we must provide them, once again, with opportunities to spend many hours per day playing freely with friends.”
Certainly, there is a place for an adequate amount of safety regulation. Likewise, there is arguably a need for some degree of structure and adult direction. But the theory that “if a little is good, a lot is better” is usually false, and nowhere does that seem to be more true than in the case of these “good things” that tend to push play from its prominent position in childhood.
We have to remember not to inadvertently trade these good things for the things that are best of all.
John Tierney: Can a Playground Be Too Safe?, The New York Times, July 18, 2011.
Peter Gray: The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescents, The American Journal of Play, Vol. 3 No. 4.
Richard Louv: Last Child in the Woods
Originally published in New Latina.