Lack Of Free Play And Recess Is Wreaking Havoc On Our Kids' Mental Health

by Melissa L. Fenton
Originally Published: 
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First they got rid of art class. They did it by telling us the potential benefits were few and far between and children needed to be engaging in math and science classes instead, not wasting 45 minutes once a week coloring and making clay pencil holders (and actually flexing vital creative muscles). Society needs future STEM experts, not sculptors!

Then they did away with music education. Who really needs music class weekly? We have sentences to diagram! Geometry theories to test! Technology initiatives to master! You can listen to music on your own time.

Finally, they got rid of physical education class. We don’t have time to play dodgeball and capture the flag. Kids, you can play when you get home from school because we have standardized tests to conquer! (Except you can’t really play when you get home from school because of the hours of homework you have to complete.)

All the kids had left was recess — those precious few minutes of running around outside right after lunch. Until some government official somewhere (and certainly not a teacher in the classroom) theorized that today’s students were not getting enough classroom time, and then recess was canceled entirely. Because state standards, or something like that.

Coinciding with all of the above (but especially with the decline and dissolution of traditional recess) is a very significant rise in anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders and illnesses among our children. These rates have been on a steady climb for years, and it’s now estimated that 5 to 8 times as many high school and college-aged students show symptoms of major depression and/or anxiety disorder than those several decades ago.

This should be of major concern to us all.

Interestingly enough, among the many factors that psychologists believe could be causing today’s children to have such a bleak outlook on life, thus often suffering from a variety of mental health issues is simply enough — a lack of recess time.

In other words, it’s believed that today’s youth are putting more value on extrinsic things than they are intrinsic things. Youth (and adults too) who focus on intrinsic goals — those things that have to do with personal development and finding meaning in one’s own life — suffer less from mental health and anxiety disorders than those that focus on extrinsic goals, or goals that have to do with how others look at you, material things, status, and good looks.

So what does all of this have to do with recess? Well, children who tend to focus on intrinsic goals possess more self-control, solve their own problems more frequently, develop their own interests without direction or supervision, and become naturally more competent to pursue their own interests. And where and how does a child learn and develop those vital characteristics? Turns out, just playing on a playground at recess time.

Peter Gray, author of the book Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, has been conducting research for years on the correlation between the lack of recess and the decline in our children’s mental health. He states in an article on Psychology Today, “By depriving children of opportunities to play on their own, away from direct adult supervision and control, we are depriving them of opportunities to learn how to take control of their own lives. We may think we are protecting them, but in fact we are diminishing their joy, diminishing their sense of self-control, preventing them from discovering and exploring the endeavors they would most love, and increasing the odds that they will suffer from anxiety, depression, and other disorders.”

Gray contends that, even when children are out of their school environments (incidentally where they now spend more time in the classroom than ever before), they’re in extracurricular activities that don’t offer opportunities for self-direction or self-control either; rather, they are spending time in adult-controlled and coached activities like organized sports and lessons. Furthermore, he says that extended hours in controlled school classrooms and the constant focus on testing and evaluation without recess breaks and free play is almost “designed to produce anxiety and depression.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics wholeheartedly agrees and even released a policy statement on the crucial role of recess in school. Among the physical and cognitive benefits of recess, they add: “Through play at recess, children learn valuable communication skills, including negotiation, cooperation, sharing, and problem-solving as well as coping skills, such as perseverance and self-control. These skills become fundamental, lifelong personal tools.”

Bottom line? If your child’s school is not offering its students sufficient recess and free play time, speak up. Share the latest research findings and the mental health consequences with administration. And let your kids play outside and freely, without panic, interventions, or controlled and managed activities. Just good old fashioned play. It’s good for all of us, but especially good (and vital) for their futures.

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