Kids don’t play nearly as much as they used to.
This might sound odd to some, as many are confused by what actually constitutes “play.” Kids are still “playing” little league and AAU ball, right? So how can one say that play has dramatically declined?
Well, despite the fact “play” can be many, many things, it doesn’t include everything a child can spend their time doing. Over the past several decades, American adults have increasingly steered children toward formalized activities that do not really qualify as play. This is a troubling trend, as play teaches our children crucial life skills that cannot be replicated elsewhere. Play is so important, in fact, that the United Nations has recognized it as a basic right for every child. A 2017 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics outlines how play enhances creativity, imagination, dexterity, boldness, teamwork skills, stress-management skills, confidence, conflict resolution skills, decision-making skills, problem-solving skills and learning behaviors.
STACK spoke with play expert Dr. Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology at Boston College and the 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, to get a better grasp on what play is and why it’s so important. While “free play” is a term commonly thrown around nowadays, Gray finds it a bit redundant. “If it’s not free, it’s not play,” Gray says. With that, let’s dive into the five criteria Gray considers essential to play.
1. It is Self-Chosen and Self-Directed
The first characteristic of play is it is self-chosen and self-directed. This fact immediately eliminates organized sports games, music lessons, etc. from being play. “It is an activity that children themselves decide to do. They take the initiative to do so. Self-directed means it’s directed by the players themselves—it’s not directed by someone who’s not one of the players,” Gray says.
It’s that very responsibility that makes play such an important method for developing life skills. Instead of looking to a parent or authority figure for guidance, the kid (or kids) must figure things out on their own.
“They learn how to choose their own activity, how to take initiative, how to create their own rules, how to change rules as they go along, how to negotiate with one another,” Gray says. “In order to play with other people (when) there’s no authority figure telling you what to do and deciding the rules and settling all the conflicts, you’ve got to do all that yourself. These are among the major things kids learn in play. We’re seeing a whole generation of people growing up not learning these things.”
A study from the University of Colorado found that children who spent more time in less structured activities (such as pick-up games) develop better “self-directed executive function.” This skill largely centers around being able to set your own goals and take action on them. A 2014 University of Texas study found that college students who’d spent their childhoods splitting equal amounts of time between organized and “pick-up”-style sports were more creative than peers who devoted the majority of their play time to the former.
Consider a 6-year-old who’s signed up for a soccer league by their parent. The league requires them to play at certain locations at certain times while a coach decides if and where they play in the game and a referee decides the rules. We might call it “playing” soccer, but it’s actually quite far removed from true play. Another critical element of this first characteristic of play is that it means those who are playing are free to quit without penalty at any time. If the play becomes too painful or intense—or simply too dull—a player can leave on their own accord.
2. It’s Done for Its Own Sake, Not an Outside Reward
The second characteristic of play is that it’s done for its own sake and not for some sort of outside reward or approval. Play is done because those involved want to play—nothing more, nothing less. “Play is intrinsically motivated rather than extrinsically-motivated. If you’re doing it for some sort of reward outside of play itself, it’s not play,” Gray says. “As soon as you get adults involved, it’s all about winning and losing and trophies and championships and all that stuff. Which of course, if that becomes the concern, you’re going to want to specialize in a sport and devote all your practice to it.”
If you’re playing a sports-style game where there are winners and losers, sure, you want to win, but that’s not the driving reason you play. By removing outside rewards, outside pressure and outside judgement, you create an environment where kids are naturally more creative and bold.
“There’s no one judging you on it. That gives you this amazing freedom to try things you wouldn’t try if people were judging you—try more difficult maneuvers and so on,” Gray says. “But it also means you’re not going to push it to the point where you’re harming yourself, because there’s no pressure to do that.” Gray points to a young baseball player pitching through arm pain as an example of something that often happens in organized sports but not in play.
3. It’s Always Structured
The third characteristic of play is that it’s always structured, which can seem counterintuitive at first. But even the most bizarre or chaotic play still has some type of rules or objective.
“There’s no such thing as unstructured play. (Play is) always structured and it’s always structured by the players (themselves.) Play is how children learn how to structure things and how they learn to create an organized activity. This is true in group and solo play,” Gray says. “Every form of play has rules, it has structures. What looks like a wild, rough-and-tumble play fight among a couple boys has rules. The rules may not be stated, but if anybody violates the reals, the other will be sure to state it. Kids building a sandcastle on the beach, there’s unstated rules.”
Participants are always incentivized to create structure which makes the play fair and fun for all involved. Otherwise, some kids will simply quit, which no one wants. Points may be worth more for one team than another. A bigger kid may be forced to self-handicap so they don’t dominate the game (they may have to hit the ball past a further boundary to hit a home run, or pitch from further away, for example). Inventing, testing and implementing these rules or guidelines requires all sorts of critical thinking and interpersonal skills, and it’s something totally lost in more organized activities.
4. It Always Has an Element of Imagination
The fourth characteristic of play is it always has an element of imagination. “There’s always a sense in which you’re stepping out of the real world when you’re playing. You’re now in an imaginary world in some sense. The advantage of being in an imaginary world is that anything can happen—there’s no limit to the kind of situations you can create,” Gray says. “(And) because it’s an imaginary world, it ultimately doesn’t count. It’s a practice world, a simulation world, it’s a place to try things out.”
This means children at play are constantly engaged in hypothetical thinking. Many researchers agree hypothetical thinking is a major differentiator between human thinking and animal thinking. We can think about possibilities that aren’t actually present, we can invent new things, we can think about different realities, etc. “Play is how children practice hypothetical thinking and practice creativity and generate the ability to imagine things that aren’t actually present,” Gray says. “Then follow through in a logical way.” Play’s elements of imagination and self-direction also exclude many screen-based activities (such as watching television) from qualifying as play.
5. It’s Conducted in a Very Alert Frame of Mind
The fifth characteristic of play is it’s conducted in an alert frame of mind, but not one that’s overly stressful. This fifth characteristic naturally follows when the previous four are present. Certain types of play will see children deliberately expose themselves to a certain amount of stress or fear, but the freedom to quit at anytime ensures it’s never more than they can handle. No fear of failure also keeps stress levels low, and the constant opportunity to re-shape or re-define the game keeps players interested. “You can’t be mentally passive in play. Because you’re following rules, because the means are more important than the ends,” Gray says.
Are your kids getting much activity that meets these five criteria? If not, are there ways to shift their current activities to be more in line with some or all of these characteristics? Can they self-select and self-direct more of what they’re doing? Or foster a grander sense of imagination? Somewhere along the line, adults reasoned that highly structured, adult-led activities were a better use of their child’s time than play. They had the best of intentions, but research has shown this to be horribly misguided.
If you’re a parent, think back to your own childhood. How much more play did you engage in than the current generation of kids? Probably a lot, right? And we’re guessing you turned out OK. Fight the need to micromanage your child and allow them to experience life through play.
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