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The end of play?

GAYS MILLS - As our weather gradually moderates and the days get longer, I expect to see kids, groups of kids, outside playing, but that seems to be happening less and less. Whatever happened to play? I’m thinking of the kind of unstructured, child-directed, outdoor play that you probably grew up with. I think about this a lot, especially in good weather, but even in winter there are ways to play outside–snow forts, skating, sledding, etc. all rarely seen today.  

Part of the answer might be that there are just fewer kids around. Families used to have built-in playmates with multiple offspring in many if not most homes. My family of origin had four kids and there was always someone to do something with. We lived in an area with lots of other families with kids. Just riding your bike around the neighborhood, it was very common to find and get involved in some kind of activity already in progress. We didn’t ever have, or knew anybody who had, an arranged play date. Shucks, every day was a self-directed, ad hoc play day.

Pick up games of baseball were popular. Surprise! You don’t need 18 people to play baseball. A game of over-the-line with three or four kids might morph into a regular game as other kids show up. My younger brother Bill and I invented a great little whiffle ball game for two on our driveway that my memory tells me we played by the hour. If a few more pals appeared, we moved into the street or off to the park for whatever game we had enough players to play. 

In the 50s, World War II and cowboys were a huge influence on the post war generation. War movies, TV westerns and films gave baby boomers (boys, at least) plenty of ideas for interactive outdoor play. War games and the re-winning of the west were played out again and again in backyards and vacant lots all over America. Bandanas were optional, hats or helmets strongly recommended, cap guns mandatory.

Studies show that on average kids spend 50 per cent less time outside than they did 20 years ago and only 12.6 minutes a day in vigorous physical activity. It should come as no surprise that modern kids spend an average of 6.5 hours per day on screen time, which includes TV and various electronic devices. These trends probably reflect our society as a whole: we are all less active and more sedentary than previous generations.

Another big factor in the decline of play for kids, and for adults, is that we are all busier than we used to be. Kids are scheduled into organized activities like team sports, lessons, and classes. What is missing in these kinds of activities are the creativity, exploration, and discovery inherent in unstructured free play time.

Play time that is child-directed, child-focused, and child-centered, in mixed age and gender groups, teaches a lot about emotional and social regulation and development.  Play time literally helps kids grow up.