Kids need more time to play

toddlers playing in the mudParents are booking their kids' lives full of extra-curricular activities, but the need for unscheduled play time is tragically overlooked.

Summer vacation has begun. I’m at home all day with my two energetic sons bouncing around the house, and I’m feeling as apprehensive about figuring out how to fill the hours as they are overjoyed at being released from the confines of school. It was tempting to register them for summer activities – music and art camps, sports teams, the day camps offered by every church in town – in order to have time to myself, but that would mean my kids would miss out on the free, unscheduled hours of play that make summer such a wonderful time, and I don’t want to take that away from them if I don’t have to.

Children’s lives in general are far too over-scheduled. They put in long school days, with several hours of homework at night. Then there are the early morning sports practices and the after-school music lessons, clubs, more sports, martial arts, language and dance classes. Many of these activities require weekend travel to out-of-town games or competitions, which means that some families are on the go all the time.

I don’t want to live like that because I don’t believe that the benefits of exposing my kids to a plethora of extracurricular activities outweigh the costs. Play is the most important thing a child can do, and its loss has serious repercussions for child development. In an article called “Give Childhood back to Children,” neuro-psychologist Peter Gray explains why play is crucial for children. It is how children practice the skills they’ll eventually need as adults, such as the abilities to think creatively, to get along with other people and cooperate effectively, and to control their own impulses and emotions.

When children don’t have access to play, bad things happen. Emotional disorders such as depression and anxiety are 5 to 8 times higher among children than they were in the 1950s. Empathy has decreased and narcissism has increased since psychologists began measuring these in the 1970s. Other academic assessments have found that creative thinking has decreased drastically in the past thirty years. All of these unfortunate changes follow the decline of play, which is “exactly what we would predict from our knowledge of play’s purposes.”

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