There’s no doubt that play has a wide range of benefits for kids, and many experts see it as nothing short of essential for child development. Yet today’s kids are running dangerously low on playtime. Between jam-packed schedules, risk-averse parents, increased screen time and other challenges, kids are facing the possibility of play deprivation. Without enough play, kids may struggle with learning, emotional regulation, social skills and obesity. They may have trouble gaining skills that they’ll carry with them for life.
Fortunately, we can stop these negative effects by helping kids play. Letting them loose at a playground is a good start, but it isn’t enough if kids haven’t “learned” how to play. Let’s explore play deprivation and how educators can address and avoid it.
What Is Play Deprivation?
Play deprivation is what it sounds like — a lack of play. Depriving kids of this essential experience is associated with poor outcomes related to a child’s physical, emotional and social health. Getting enough playtime is especially important during a kid’s younger years. Not getting enough can create problems that last a lifetime.
Consider how much learning happens on the playground. While playing, kids learn how to interact with their bodies, nature and other kids. They might push their limits and build confidence by going down a formidable slide at the park. They might learn how to cooperate and get creative by playing house with other children. And, of course, it’s just plain fun! These experiences help connect the right neurons and build foundations for life.
Play is more complex than many of us give it credit for. Experts don’t even agree on its definition, but one element that usually appears is the need for self-motivated, self-directed activities. This factor is especially significant as we consider how we can promote play.
It’s relatively easy for educators and parents to lean on structured play, which is adult-led and includes more organized activities like sports, drama classes and board games. Unstructured play, on the other hand, is free and unplanned, allowing kids to use their imaginations and play at their own pace, like when they play make-believe. As we combat play deprivation, we must remember to give kids both experiences.
What Causes Play Deprivation?
Play deprivation has many causes and has become especially prevalent in the digital age. Some of the causes of play deprivation include:
- Inadequate play spaces: Gone are the days when parents could send their kids to explore the neighborhood worry-free. Many places aren’t very pedestrian-friendly, and access to outdoor spaces is often limited, especially for those living in cities where outdoor space is an expensive luxury. Without places like parks and playgrounds with quality, updated equipment, many families don’t have anywhere to get outside and play.
- Packed schedules: Kids are under more pressure than ever to take part in extracurricular activities like organized sports and clubs, and many have mountains of homework. Even if a good portion of their time is spent in structured play — i.e., sports — there might not be much time left for unstructured play.
- Not enough recess or playtime during school: Parents might pack their kids’ schedules during non-school hours, but schools are notorious for reducing or eliminating recess time. These decisions can further limit a child’s access to play.
- Not enough self-directed time: Many parents rush to keep kids busy at all hours, feeding them activities and ideas. They might oversee every moment of play, limiting the child’s access to those vital elements of intrinsic, self-directed play. While kids may need some guidance for “learning” how to play, boredom is a fantastic resource for motivating kids to get creative and explore new things.
- Too much screen time: You probably know that screen time is a big concern for growing kids. On average, kids 8-12 spend 4-6 hours each day on screens. Although the digital world offers many opportunities for learning and play, it also can lead to problems like trouble sleeping, poorer grades, obesity and mood problems. It also doesn’t offer the same benefits as real-world play.
- Risk-averse adults: Some adults are so focused on doing what’s best for a child that they limit important life experiences. They might prohibit play because of worry. Few would argue that safety is essential while playing, but we must weigh the risks of appropriate play, such as scrapes and bruises, with the risks of play deprivation, like emotional and social challenges later in life. Kids often need perceived risk — activities that feel risky but aren’t — to grow and build confidence.
The Effects of Play Deprivation
We know that true, self-motivated, self-directed play can be hard to come by, but what does play deprivation mean for a child’s development? Play deprivation can make it hard for kids to learn, grow and thrive. It’s linked to major emotional dysregulation, which can come with:
- Diminished impulse control
- Inflexibility in thought
- Fragile and shallow interpersonal relationships
- Poor management of aggression
- Less self-regulation
Conversely, healthy play patterns have been linked to traits like trust, optimism, problem-solving ability, perseverance, empathy, belonging and openness. Play also encourages a healthy relationship with fitness and exercise. Play tends to help children gain experiences required for learning empathetic social skills, good stress management, curiosity and other adaptive capabilities that help them respond to stressors and challenges in the world. Even altruistic behaviors are absent in severely play-deprived children.
Young children learn all sorts of things when they play. They hone their fine and gross motor skills while they climb on the playground, and they learn to follow rules and communicate their needs when they play with others. They explore the world using their senses as they see, hear and touch things.
Older kids can even see classroom topics at work. They experience gravity when they go down the slide and learn about plant life as they watch the leaves change colors.
Play can teach children a wide range of skills that help during class, like critical thinking skills and when to ask for help. Recess helps them improve memory, attention and concentration. It also helps them stay on-task and minimizes disruptive behavior in the classroom. It can even be used to close achievement gaps for young children and help reduce inequalities in disadvantaged communities.
In short, a lack of play can rob children of a host of necessary skills and experiences. The impact of play deprivation can last long past the school age. Nowadays, kids don’t have the same opportunities as earlier generations, so adults must be deliberate in providing access to play. Adults are often the cause of play deprivation, so creative solutions also fall to the grown-ups.
8 Ways to Eliminate Play Deprivation
Play is part of human nature. While our modern-day schedules might be at odds with the inclination to play, a little creativity can help educators and parents clear a path for fun and fruitful playtime.
1. Model Playtime
Yes, we’re giving you permission to let loose a little. Kids are smart, but they may need a little guidance, especially if they’re young or haven’t had any unstructured playtime. Show them what play looks like and help them jumpstart their creativity. Simply seeing their teacher or parent toss a ball around, rather than hop on their phone after work, can show kids what it means to disconnect and have some fun.
Consider using scaffolding strategies to help ease kids into play. Educators often use scaffolding to build independence for certain activities, such as learning a new concept during class. We can also use it for play by adding temporary support that meets a child where they’re at and considers their strengths and weaknesses.
Say you have a student who gets handed a tablet during free time at home. Playing make-believe with other kids might seem intimidating or confusing to him. You could help him with a one-on-one session where you offer prompts or ask supporting questions. You might suggest that you both be pirates. Then you could ask him who he wants to be on the ship — a captain, a swabbie, a navigator? See where he wants to go. Ask if the playground area is a ship, an island or a dock.
Scaffolding also involves encouraging the child to build up confidence and helping them when they get stuck. Once they get a feel for it, they can start playing on their own or with other kids and build up those all-important life skills.
2. Go Hands-Off
On the other side of the argument, a key part of play is being child-directed. In fact, kids don’t usually consider it “play” if there’s an adult present, even if an activity is fun and makes them happy. While supervision is still critical, take a step back and let kids direct their own playtime rather than feeding them ideas. Give them time to put their imaginations to work and limit the use of structured activities.
You can give them a push now and then, but allowing children to create their own playtime is essential.
3. Limit Screen Time
While educators and caregivers might not have much control over how kids spend their time at home, they can still promote limited screen time. Make screen use for educational purposes only during the day, and help teach parents about the benefits of play and how play deprivation affects learning.
Remind them that kids under 2 years old should have no screen time unless video chatting with friends or family. Kids from 2-5 years old should have just one hour a day while co-viewing with a parent or sibling, and kids from 5-17 should limit non-homework screen use to under two hours. Ask parents to create a family media use plan with a free tool from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
4. Consider Reducing Homework
Depending on the age of your students, consider how much homework they’re getting and whether you can reduce it. If you’re piling on work that increases their stress or stops them from getting enough playtime, it might be worth cutting back.
5. Promote Different Types of Play
We’ve already mentioned unstructured and structured play, but there are many other kinds, such as parallel play, physical play and constructive play. Kids should have a good mix of these different types of play. Otherwise, they might miss out on critical learning opportunities that come with other areas of play, such as the logical thinking needed for building structures or the social skills for playing rule-based games with peers.
Take a minute to think about what kinds of play you’re facilitating and whether you could include others.
6. Get Outside
If the kids don’t get outside much, encourage them to get out there. Playing outside can be a good change of pace and introduce them to new opportunities, like exciting playground equipment. It can also help children reap the benefits of sunlight and vitamin D and put them in a more relaxing environment to combat the stress and stuffiness of the classroom.
7. Promote Appropriate Risk-Taking
Taking risks is a part of growing up. Of course, adults must keep an eye on kids while they play, but over-restricting playtime can do more harm than good. As long as their play area is age-appropriate and well-designed, kids can use perceived risk to learn about limits and build confidence. After all, in 20 years, they might need to take a risk when they start a new job or decide to have a child of their own.
Encourage kids to tackle the climbing net or cross the balance beam. If failure simply means a tumble, they can try and try again until they meet their goal, learning the value of perseverance and experience. They also learn more about dealing with failure, stress and challenge.
8. Find or Build a Great Playground
Playgrounds offer unique landscapes for kids to play. They bring children outside and let them play on items that they don’t get anywhere else. They’re ideal for creative activities and can foster teamwork, imaginative play, heart-pumping exercise and various sensory experiences.
Parents may have the option of looking for a high-quality, age-appropriate playground, but educators are usually restricted to the school or daycare’s playground. If your school doesn’t offer a good play space — perhaps it’s old, poorly designed or non-inclusive — you can help improve it. Consider starting a committee and advocating for a playground that supports your students’ need for beneficial play.
Once you’ve identified a good play space, head back to it often. Be a recess advocate and incorporate play into the kids’ schedules as often as possible.
Solve Play Deprivation With Playworld
Any adult in a child’s life can help them reap the benefits of play. Educators, care centers and school administrators have an especially strong opportunity since kids spend so much time at these facilities. Combating play deprivation starts with a good play space. Here at Playworld, that’s what we do best. Our high-quality playground equipment is built to enrich lives of all ages, with components that foster imagination, physical activity, socialization and much more.
We also know that a playground isn’t built in a day. We have plenty of playground-building resources, including our knowledgeable representatives, to help you form a committee, design a playground and raise funds. Reach out today to request a quote and get in touch with a Playworld rep!