A preschool director once relayed to me an observation she made at her community center. She watched as a mother plucked her child from the waters of the pool at the end of his swimming lesson, quickly dried him and dressed him right on the deck, and then delivered him, minutes later, to his karate class. She wondered at how passive his role in the whole exchange was, as though he was merely a passenger on the high-speed train that was his life.
This scenario plays out over and over in many different ways, sparking headlines like “Is Your Child Overscheduled? Kids Need ‘Down Time'” and “Are Kids Depressed Because They Don’t Just Play Anymore?”
Some argue that the “overscheduled child” is a myth, or that the structure and experience of these activities is beneficial for children. In fact, the challenge many parents express is that in our current culture, the alternative to these scheduled activities ends up being screen time. Dr. Delaney Ruston, one of the filmmakers who explored the impact of the digital world with the film, Screenagers, lamented that “downtime has become screentime.”
While some may present this as a “lesser of two evils” dichotomy, there actually appears to be a similar thread connecting the two sides.
The current culture of childhood seems to be blighted by pervasive passivity, placing children in the position of alternately being precisely scheduled passengers or being controlled, directed, and pacified by the next “suggested for you” offering from a glowing device.
If the common view is that children can either be shuttled from one activity to another or be glued to a screen, at what point do they have an active role in their lives?
One writer and parent, Andrea Orr, acknowledged in a Washington Post piece that play may be the antidote to this problem before adding that “while the ‘just play’ model of childrearing may seem more organic and idyllic, that ship has pretty much sailed.”
Surely, pushing back against this pervasive passivity in childhood takes intentional effort, but it’s definitely worth the reward.
If the schedule and the screen continue to carry children through childhood as passive passengers, they miss out on a critical piece of their development: autonomy.
Autonomy is a powerful developmental driver. A child’s desire to “do it myself” (as frustrating as that may seem at times) plays a key role in motivating him/her to learn and grow. An inborn desire for autonomy and mastery is why any child wants to learn to tie shoes, read books, and eventually, get a job and live independently.
Child-directed play feeds this drive and gives each child a sense of ownership, motivation, and creative power.
Think of all the choices children make as they play.
Will they paint?
Will they play dress-up?
Will they build with blocks?
Who will they play with?
What kinds of rules will they create?
How long will they play, and where?
While each of those answers brings a different experience and opportunity for development, this process of self-direction itself is an important developmental experience.
Perhaps this connection between play and autonomy is what explains the fact that the documented decline in free play in childhood coincides with an increase in childhood psychopathology. Many mental health issues, particularly anxiety and depression, which are historically on the rise for children, are believed to be associated with a low sense of control. In addition to that, this sense of control being outside of themselves also works against self-motivation and the healthy pursuit of goals.
As neuropsychologist Dr. William Stixrud and co-author Ned Johnson explain in their book, The Self-Driven Child:
“Agency may be the one most important factor in human happiness and well-being.”
In early childhood, one of the most developmentally appropriate ways to exercise agency and autonomy is through play. In play, children are given many opportunities to make decisions, drive their play, and practice self-control and self-determination. These experiences contribute to an internal locus of control, which is associated with goal-oriented behavior and happiness and may even influence self-esteem. Interestingly, its absence (an external locus of control) is associated with stress, anxiety, and depression.
It may be common in our current culture to keep children in a passive position, but the ship has surely not sailed on play. Play is not just an idyllic fantasy, it’s a crucial part of healthy development. When we make time for play, we put children in a powerful role, a role that supports their autonomy, drives learning, builds self-mastery, and promotes happiness.
That’s worth the effort. That’s why we play.
The Why We Play letters share this message about the importance of play for building autonomy and gaining experience in versions written specifically for the parents in your education community. Get your own set to help you consistently communicate Why We Play.