If You Have To Pencil In Playtime, Your Kid Is Doing Too Much

by Karen Johnson
Originally Published: 
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Whose life is/was harder—moms of the 21st century or moms of the 1950s? Today’s mom has a high-tech minivan with a DVD player to entertain her kids. And smartphones that direct her to the nearest urgent care while traveling across the country.

Yeah, but ’50s mom usually got to cook dinner and drink her wine in peace while her kids played outside for five hours. And if she didn’t hear their voices or see their sweaty little faces all day, she didn’t have to worry that nosy Susan Parker next door would call child services. In fact, she probably thought they were at Susan Parker’s house drinking her Tang and would come home when called.

So who wins? Neither, really.

But also, have you ever wondered if kids today have it easier or harder than those of our parents’ and grandparents’ generation? Because for all the technology and cool gadgets they have… (you know we had to go to the library and look up information in the card catalog using the Dewey Decimal System, kids. There was no Siri.) … kids today have far more stress than we ever did. They had better take all the AP classes or they can pretty much kiss a college scholarship goodbye. And one sport isn’t enough. 2-3 sports is bare minimum, plus extra-curricular activities—do they volunteer enough? Have they traveled? Have they had enough life experiences to impress the admissions department who will read their application?

And it doesn’t start in high school like it used to. Kids in my school district are told to find a “focus” as they enter THE 6th GRADE. Band? Drama? Track and field? Hockey? Come on, kids! You’re 12 now! You JUST stopped wiping your own butt like 7 years ago, but college is knocking on the door! Pick a path!

So when we hear statistics like those shared in a recent article on Quartz that tell the bleak truth—kids don’t have time for free play anymore—we are disturbed. But many of us are not surprised.

’70s and ’80s elementary school children came home from school, ate some freezer pops, and ran around outside with the neighborhood kids until they were called in. Yeah, we did extra-curricular activities—my childhood softball memories are some of my faves—but that was like once a week. Most of our exercise and peer interactions came from play.

I certainly see this happening in my own family. At any given time, my three children are involved in two or more activities, from baseball to soccer to tennis to horseback riding to gymnastics. Plus, add in Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts and Spanish club and math club and music lessons and… well, there are weeks that we live in the car and don’t stop from morning until night.

And as much as I know they enjoy these activities (I promise we don’t force them to do anything they don’t want to do), I am sad for them. I am sad when they go a few days without having time for free play. Without having time to chase each other in an epic game of tag, or create an obstacle course in our backyard. I am sad when I don’t hear my daughter talking to her stuffed animals or Shopkins for a few days, or when my son hasn’t rounded up some neighborhood kids for a pick-up game of basketball.

So we carve out that time. We have to. We cancel plans. We skip a practice. We protect our weekends if we can, respectfully declining an invitation to an event so that our kids can decompress and engage in some unstructured, run-and-get-dirty, free play.

A new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics shares that because of the vital importance of play, doctors are now stepping in to ensure kids have it in their lives.

“Play is not frivolous,” the report says. “It enhances brain structure and function and promotes executive function (i.e., the process of learning, rather than the content), which allow us to pursue goals and ignore distractions.”

Play actually helps our children’s brains develop, and is as necessary in their lives as learning math, reading, how to share, and tie their shoes. So, in the interest of protecting our kids, don’t be surprised if at your next visit to the pediatrician, she writes you a unique subscription—to make sure your child has time to play. Because that’s what doctors are starting to do in this fast-paced, over-scheduled world.

The report categorizes the different types of play that kids need in their lives, which include object play, physical play (which is more active, locomotor, and rough and tumble for some kids), outdoor play (yes! play outside!), and social or pretend play alone or with others.

Obviously some kids prefer one or two kinds more than others (my oldest son almost never did pretend play and would much rather read or build Legos, whereas my daughter will play in her pretend world for hours), but all types are valuable to kids’ development.

Also, the report emphasizes how much play helps balance out stress, which is something our over-scheduled kids are feeling. They experience pressures and stresses we never did, which is all the more reason to ensure they have to time to freely play as they wish. Also, for a child who is coping with a major life change or something upsetting at home, play is crucial to help him process what’s going on.

The benefits of play also include: “improvements in executive functioning, language, early math skills (numerosity and spatial concepts), social development, peer relations, physical development and health, and enhanced sense of agency,” the report says. And, not surprisingly, if children are deprived of play, experts see increased “prevalence of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.”

And the AAP emphasizes that it’s vital kids play with other kids, as this experience teaches them valuable life skills. Peer engagement will push kids to negotiate and cooperate with others, which are tools they’ll need as they grow up. For example, have you ever heard your kids arguing with the neighbors about who is “it” in hide and seek? Or whose turn it is on the trampoline? Don’t you remember when we were kids and you were pissed when Kristen from down the street wouldn’t share her Jem doll, even though you totally let her play with your Barbie dream store? You learned something from that experience—like how to deal with the Kristens of the world. Our kids need to have those disagreements too, and learn how to work them out.

The truth is, kids practice working together, take leadership roles, and being kind—all through play.

I know, I know. Like we need one more thing to worry about. There aren’t enough hours in the day, right? Between homework and school projects and orchestra practice and selling popcorn for Scouts and making sure they have their flu shots and holy crap their feet grow fast so they already need new shoes… And now we also have to think to ourselves, “Hmmm has my child played today? Or yesterday? Or this week?” And not like “Oh yeah, she ‘played’ at soccer practice.” No. Like actual free, unstructured, no grownups allowed play.

Well, yeah, turns out, we do. Turns out, we need to put that on the list—as high, if not higher—than soccer, or Spanish club, and orchestra.

Listen, I’m in the same boat with you, so I get it. As I look at this week’s calendar, I see: baseball game, soccer practice, curriculum night, school picture day, Cub Scouts, and a school fundraiser event. In ONE week. But I’ll find the time. I’ll carve it out. Even it means skipping something on the list. Or letting them skip a chore at home. Or stay up for an extra half hour.

Our kids deserve to play—for their development and physical and mental health. And also because they’re kids.

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