In 1955 the average child spent 2-3 hours outdoors every day. Rain and snow forced some inside down into the basements of friends to build forts, play board games and generally horse around. When outside, kids made tree houses, played war games, hung upside down on monkey bars and rolled through the streets on their bicycles. This was all without parental supervision.
In 2018, the time kids play outdoors without supervision has shrunk to almost zero. Those kids who are granted freedom, typically have tight restrictions on where they can go and generally come from homes with single parents who work.
Time in school and homework has increased exponentially as well. Homework is assigned in kindergarten and increases steadily until high school.
Kids are now spending more time in structured play. Sports, music, art, dance and play dates are all organized, supervised and facilitated by adults.
What are the benefits and consequences of a reduction in free play?
First the good.
Childhood injury and accidental mortality are at an all-time low. Supervising adults are able to intervene in risky behaviour early enough to prevent minor and serious injuries.
Kids are becoming highly specialized at an increasingly younger age. Most NHL players being drafted now played only hockey growing up and did it throughout the entire year. The result is an NHL that contains a historically high level of skill, speed, and size. The same can be applied for almost all professional sports.
Adult-child relationships are the strongest in recorded history. Kids now see adults as partners, leaders, and coaches instead of authority figures. Increased corporation between adults and children has led to more supportive and productive households. Teenagers are confiding their problems to their parents which allows for early interventions.
Unfortunately, all of these benefits do come at a cost.
Diagnosis of childhood anxiety and depression are the highest they have ever been. The attempted suicide rate for children and teens has more than quadrupled since 1955. Young adults ability to cope with setbacks in life has caused a monumental shift in culture at post-secondary institutions. Onsite school therapists are overwhelmed with students seeking support. Some statistics show that over 50% of all university students are diagnosed with either anxiety or depression at some point in their schooling. The course curriculum has changed to offer ‘trigger warnings’ for sensitive content that may potentially upset some students.
In the younger grades, children are increasingly requiring adult intervention to solve interpersonal problems and structure their day. When offered unstructured time in school to solve a problem or create something new, students constantly require feedback and details for the outcome (ex. How do I get an ‘A’?).
The message to push through the tough times and use ‘grit’ has mostly fallen on deaf ears because educators are increasingly finding it difficult to find the balance between safety and uncomfortableness in their classrooms. Living increasingly structured lives has reduced the ability for kids to learn appropriate self-initiative skills that can be found when setting up a game or solving a problem amongst themselves on the playground.
It appears that Steven Pinker was absolutely correct when he tells us in his book ‘Better Angels of Our Nature’ that the world is safer, healthier and smarter. It’s impossible to predict what the future holds for a generation of kids who don't get to play very often.
However, it does seem to be an important step in development for children (and adults).