Almost 20 years ago, play was declared by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights as a basic right for every child. Yet the numbers show our kids play less than ever before: a 2005 report found that children’s free playtime decreased by nearly 25 per cent between 1981 and 1997 – with the authors blaming the decline on more time spent in structured activities. When it comes to playing outside, an added obstacle is that parents are increasingly worried about letting children roam freely in the neighbourhood as children of previous generations once did. But play – particularly play outdoors – is vital for our children.
We all know that being outside feels good, and a lot of research has gone into figuring out why that is the case. More importantly, scientists have also been able to pinpoint all the great benefits that kids accrue just by spending time outside. For starters, it makes them smarter, happier and more attentive. It reduces anxiety, helps build physical strength and coordination and may even prevent short-sightedness.
Why play is declining
Clare Rowe is the Clinical Director and Principal Psychologist of Rowe and Associates, a Child and Family Psychology practice in the Sydney suburb of Ramsgate. She says there’s a couple of reasons why play has declined. “As parents, we’ve perhaps always thought of ourselves as being privileged to live in a first-world country where we can allow our children to play, as opposed to the situation in other parts of the world where kids don’t have that luxury,” she says. “However, at the same time there’s this change in the last 10 to 20 years where our children are playing less, and that’s often down to over-scheduling, making their play time quite structured or adult-driven.”
She also points to the introduction of screens via tablets and mobile phones as having an impact on the amount of playtime –especially outdoor playtime – that our kids have at their disposal.
So what are our children missing out on when they don’t play enough?
How play helps kids
A 2012 study by the American Academy of Paediatrics identified a number of benefits across different aspects of development – both physical and psychological.
They found play gives children the chance to be creative, is good for developing motor function and helps them build friendships. It also allows them to express and manage their emotions, and helps them develop resilience.
Rowe agrees. “Play does a multitude of things. It develops key developmental skills that children need to learn and they are able to learn those quite naturally through play. That means you don’t have to teach them explicitly, the skills will naturally develop,” she says.
Giving kids an opportunity to spend time at play shouldn’t just be about the benefits it brings. “It’s important to remember that play can simply be about building enjoyable childhood memories – not everything our kids do has to be for development,” says Rowe.
A 2011 study found that instrumental play – that is, the kind of play that is focused on some sort of educational outcome – has replaced the kind of free play where children create their own games, but that comes at a cost.
Firstly, the kind of play where children are in charge and free to make their own rules gives them the opportunity to develop a whole range of soft skills that they need in order to be successful adults. Children who play independently with other children develop the ability to cooperate with others. They also learn to negotiate, as they figure out how they will play together. They learn to overcome obstacles as they experience challenges in their games. All of these skills are necessary for children to succeed as adults.
Letting kids roam free
A lot of this kind of independent play occurs most easily when it’s in an environment where kids can feel a certain sense of freedom, where they aren’t so closely governed by rules regarding appropriate behaviour. Outdoor spaces like backyards which are fenced but open are ideal for this kind of play.
When it comes to building resilience, Rowe says there are two aspects to free play that are particularly important.
“Firstly, let them have free time when you’re not entertaining them or giving them screen time. The whole idea of coping with boredom and frustration is part of what helps children build resilience,” she says.
The second way that free play builds resilience is through conflict resolution. “Parents need to learn not to rush in and fix it when kids disagree. By all means listen to kids if they come to you to complain but rather than sorting it out for them you can instead try offering ideas they might be able to use to fix it themselves.
“Resilience also comes from rejection,” Clare adds. “For example, if another child doesn’t want to play with them that’s OK. Being a good parent doesn’t mean making everything perfect for your child.”
Advice for parents
So allowing your child to play – and particularly to play outdoors – is important for children’s growth and development in lots of different ways. The question for parents then is how we allow them to do that.
You don’t have to do everything for them, but creating an environment and opportunities for play that your kids can combine with their imaginations to produce their own games is one way to encourage free play. Clare believes that the best kind of play from kids comes from boredom. “I’m talking about the kind of play where we don’t know what to do so we go and find something to do. Kids don’t seem to have those days and if they do there aren’t many of them,” she says.
She believes parents need to create the opportunity for boredom for their kids. “Tell them that there’s nothing organised and no screens allowed,” she advises. “There will be whingeing for a while, but you might be surprised how quickly they do figure it out.”
With summer upon us, now is a great time to turn your backyard into the scene of the type of fun that doesn’t require a screen, other kids, or much at all in the way of organisation. You’ll be helping their development, their health and giving them the chance to build the kind of childhood memories that they will cherish for years to come. Not to mention, getting some much needed you-time.
Check out the play equipment range available at Bunnings in-store or click here to view online.