A Plea for Free Play

What happened to kids walking home from school to build forts in the trees in the backyard? Or to spending Saturdays competing in neighborhood flag football games? Kids no longer practice cartwheels on the front lawn or spend rainy afternoons in the basement making up comedy sketches with friends. Kids don’t have the freedom to be idle; to let imaginations run wild and allow their connection with others to guide their next moves.

Now, our kids’ after school schedules are jam packed with after school activities. Parents are running from work to pick up and drop off and drive all over the county and beyond to get kids where they need to be. I can hear the frenzied tenor in their voices as they say, “Our Sundays are totally booked. Church. Lacrosse. Tutoring. Homework.” Believe me. I don’t have a problem with any one of these activities; but all on the same day!?

Kids and parents are showing the signs of stress too. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as we compel our kids to take high school-level classes in the seventh grade, pack tiny bits of spare time with homework, tutors, and travel soccer, and pad academic resumes with performance-focused activities, that we see an enormous rise in child anxiety, depression, and suicide. Every year I see more and more of our teens and young adults withdrawing from the colleges they worked so hard to get into plagued with despair and overwhelming anxiety.

I understand that American families are facing tough academic and economic pressures. Parents and school professionals alike are weighed down by society’s over-focus on excelling: academic performance, standardized test scores, travel sports leagues, awards. Kids are given the constant message to strive, compete, work harder, be the best, live your college resume. Time and energy spent worrying about the future is squeezing out time to just relax, play, and build vital relationships with friends.

Free play is moving towards extinction. How sad to think kids may not have time to create their secret handshakes or to call each other on bull@*#$ or shout at each other, “You’re not the boss of me”. Free time is when kids learn to negotiate rules of play and listen intently to tales of feuding family members. They can argue and make up and argue again. It’s during free play that friendships are formed and the stress of school recedes into the background.