...that when they grow up they are socially and emotionally crippled. He also points out that mammals with large brains need more play. However, over the last 60 years it has been documented that the amount of free play has been slowly taken away from human children. In the 1950s, for example, the school year was 5 weeks shorter than it is today. The school day was 6 hours long, but in elementary school two of those hours were outside playing. This included 30 minute recess in the morning, 30 minute recess in the afternoon, and a full hour for lunch where they could go to the playground if they liked. They were never in a classroom for more than an hour at a time. Homework was only for high school students and they had much less than students now. While outside of school they had chores or even part time jobs, they also had plenty of time for free play. Dr. Gray points out that he is talking specifically about free play, self-controlled and self-directed.
Over the same decades that play has declined we have also seen a well documented increase in all kinds of mental disorders in children. Gray tells us that five to eight times as many children today suffer from major depression or a clinically significant anxiety disorder. We’ve seen a doubling of the suicide rate among young people ages 15-24. We’ve seen a quadrupling of the suicide rate in children ages 15 and under.
We’ve also seen a continuous decline in children’s sense of control over their lives. They believe their lives are controlled by fate, circumstance, and by other peoples' decisions. In more recent years we’ve seen a decline in empathy and a decline in creative thinking.
Is school really what's causing this?
Gray is careful to say it is true that correlation does not prove causation. However, he also points out the correlation in this case is particularly good. The increase in anxiety and depression has not correlated with economic cycles or war. As a matter of fact, children today are more depressed than they were in the Great Depression and more anxious today than during the cold war. In addition, these are the effects that are expected when free play is taken away. Play is where we have control over our lives, where we learn to solve problems, where we experience joy, where we practice empathy, etc.
What can be done about it?
In addition to all of these conclusions, Dr. Gray makes some wonderful suggestions as well. He advises having supervisors at parks, creating adventure playgrounds like the ones you see in Europe, opening up school gymnasiums after school for free play, and blocking off streets at certain times for play. He encourages people to get to know their neighbors and he calls for action in our education system. “We need to stand up against the clamor for more school. Our children don’t need more school. Maybe they need better school, but they don’t need more school.”
Is play only important for young children?
Play is important for adults as well as kids for many reasons:
Can play benefit people in more ways than just enjoyment?
Play is not only essential for the well being of children and their futures but also leads to career exploration. In my time as a college and career coach I spent my days pondering ways to make career exploration more thorough for students than it is today. I wish I could see more time spent with middle school and high school students on this subject. And it was with the research I discussed above that I realized through play we can explore our interests which will lead to finding our passions. Play also helps us discover what we are good at, the skills that we innately have, the skills we have the ability to improve upon, and where we struggle. When combining passions with skills and our values we are then able to find all of our possible career options, or our purpose. If we are able to make a career and life doing what it is we are uniquely good at and what we truly enjoy and believe in, then we have the potential to feel as though each day is play.
If you live your passions every day,