Can We Play?
Play is essential to positive human development, but kids are playing less and less, says psychologist David Elkind. What can we do to build a new culture of play?
Play is rapidly disappearing from our homes, our schools, and our neighborhoods. Over the last two decades alone, children have lost eight hours of free, unstructured, and spontaneous play a week. More than 30,000 schools in the United States have eliminated recess to make more time for academics. From 1997 to 2003, children's time spent outdoors fell 50 percent, according to a study by Sandra Hofferth at the University of Maryland. Hofferth has also found that the amount of time children spend in organized sports has doubled, and the number of minutes children devote each week to passive leisure, not including watching television, has increased from 30 minutes to more than three hours. It is no surprise, then, that childhood obesity is now considered an epidemic.
But the problem goes well beyond obesity. Decades of research has shown that play is crucial to physical, intellectual, and social-emotional development at all ages. This is especially true of the purest form of play: the unstructured, self-motivated, imaginative, independent kind, where children initiate their own games and even invent their own rules.
In infancy and early childhood, play is the activity through which children learn to recognize colors and shapes, tastes and sounds—the very building blocks of reality. Play also provides pathways to love and social connection. Elementary school children use play to learn mutual respect, friendship, cooperation, and competition. For adolescents, play is a means of exploring possible identities, as well as a way to blow off steam and stay fit. Even adults have the potential to unite play, love, and work, attaining the dynamic, joyful state that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls "flow."
With play on the decline, we risk losing these and many other benefits. For too long, we have treated play as a luxury that kids, as well as adults, could do without. But the time has come for us to recognize why play is worth defending: It is essential to leading a happy and healthy life.
Reprinted with the permission of the Greater Good Science Center.
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