It’s likely we all remember the timeless nursery rhyme, “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.” Parents often recite the rhyme after episodes of teasing and name-calling by friends and siblings alike. It encourages children to take the high road by ignoring the taunt, refraining from retaliation, and remaining calm and good-natured. Through social interactions during kid-initiated play, children develop the crucial building blocks of childhood resiliency.
Play is often viewed through rose-colored glasses, but at times it can be mean, risky, and disappointing. Can you recall instances of injustice during your early play life? Were you ever the last person chosen to be part of a team? When children experience such challenges, what is the best course of action? An increasing number of parents today choose to intervene on their child’s behalf, whereas in the past disputes were handled by the players themselves. This seemingly innocuous distinction has serious implications for children. Researchers term this approach ‘hyper-parenting’ and suggest that such parents overinvest, overprotect, and over program the lives of their children by removing all forms of adversity. By eliminating opportunities for children to overcome adversity and to solve real-world problems, we are creating a generation of ‘tea cup’ children that are emotional fragile and inflexible.
In the past children were afforded greater freedom to explore the world on their own terms. Unstructured time was provided daily after school, on weekends, and all summer long from dawn until dusk. Space for play was wide-ranging and boundaries were always being negotiated. Pick-up games ruled the day and were favored over organized sports. There was a realization that children had to make their own way in the world and providing freedom to explore the environment was a small step in that direction. The decreasing number of children that walk to school each day (10 percent today versus 50 percent in 1969) demonstrates the shift away from independence.
Today, the roaming hoards of children that once populated the local streets and parks have migrated indoors. When outside they are likely participating in organized activities. In this climate, play has transformed from an unstructured, child-initiated activity to an adult-directed activity. Why? The main culprit is parental fear.
Scientific research suggests that daily doses of unstructured play enables children to make sense of their world; develop social and cultural understandings; communicate thoughts and feelings; enhance creativity; refine problem-solving abilities; develop perspective taking skills; and refine negotiation skills. Children benefit from experiencing and working through adversity. They benefit from engaging in child-initiated play. If outdoor play continues on its downward spiral then it is my belief that we’ll see a decline in empathy and rise in narcissism among children today. Is that an outcome you are comfortable with? What can you do in your local community to help save play?