Why Play is Important: Connecting the Dots with Leisure

Kids at Play

If you were born before 1985, do you remember play time at school during recess? We had 20-30 minutes three times a day(!) to play dodge-ball, four-square (not the app), tag, marbles, etc.

I’m reading Pastimes: The Context of Contemporary Leisure by Ruth V. Russell. It is a textbook I will be using when I teach my recreation and leisure courses next Fall.

“If unstructured play is so crucial to intellectual development, why is it disappearing?” pg. 82, Russell.

This quote should resonate strongly with parents and even grandparents who interact with children. Russell talks about how children have lost 8 hours of free, self-organized play per week! We know that schools have all but abolished play time in the form of recess, P.E. and shortened lunch time play in favor of spending more time in the classroom, preparing for standardized tests.

Many parents are afraid their children will be abducted from their front yards or streets if allowed to play outdoors unsupervised. The facts are that most child abductions are not stranger abductions, nor are they random. But that still does not encourage parents to let their children out of their sight.

Because of these fears, these days, most children are placed into leader-led, organized play programs with start and stop times and expected outcomes. Municipal parks and recreation agencies have been providing a variety of recreation and leisure activities and experiences for the better part of the 20th century.

American society has come to depend on agencies providing recreation in our daily culture—in fact we have come to expect it. I should know…I held this job for 35 years and am grateful. As we hurry through our busy lives, grabbing leisure where we can get it, it makes sense to have someone else schedule our leisure, and our children’s. Without parks and recreation agencies, people would have to spend more time looking for and planning for leisure.

Baby Boomer and older Gen-X parents spent years structuring their Millennial children’s leisure time. A typical schedule after school looked like this: Monday was ballet, Tuesday and Thursday was soccer practice, Wednesday and Friday was music lesson or (you fill in the blank). Saturday was game or performance day. Pretty busy for the whole family and no down time to just relax.

Ask any Millennial adult now how they feel about unstructured time. He or she will likely look at you and ask, “What?” Most Millennials lived very structured lives as children and now find it difficult to seek unstructured leisure time. Each semester, when I teach my Perspectives on Leisure class, we discuss this and students share this fact with me this over and over.

Russell goes on to say that the problem of unstructured play is mirrored in adults. We treat play and leisure time as a luxury in adulthood. More studies show that even older adults enjoy the health benefits of play and leisure and can still learn and improve cognitive development with hobbies.

Because of the lack of unstructured play time in our society, this generation’s children are also disconnected from nature. Again, it comes down to parents not letting their kids play outdoors in free play out of fear. I encourage parents to read the book, The Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv. The theme of this book is “saving our children from nature-deficit disorder.”

Years ago, I took a group of lifeguards to Squaw Valley to provide supervision on a field trip for one of our day camp programs. Day camp participants rode up from inner-city Sacramento on three buses. They had choices in activities in which they could participate and received wristbands so we could identify the groups. One of the choices was to swim in the large swimming pool where we had lifeguards posted.

A group of young African-American girls were sitting in the spa next to the pool, which overlooks a vista of pine-forested Sierra Nevada mountains. I overheard one young girl telling her friend that she was never going to take off her wristband. The other girl asked why. She replied, “I want to remember this place forever. I will never be able to come here again.”

Upon hearing this, as tears welled up in my eyes, I realized why we provide outdoor leisure experiences to children. On their own, and within their own circumstances, these experiences may be the only opportunity some children ever have in experiencing nature and the outdoors. Squaw Valley is only a two hour drive from Sacramento, but you can bet that most of these kids will indeed never set foot there again in their lifetimes.

While I do not have a definitive solution to this notion of allowing children unstructured time, I hope my blog can shed some light on leisure time and the way we can view leisure and play as a necessity of life.

Connect the Dots

17 thoughts on “Why Play is Important: Connecting the Dots with Leisure

  1. Have always been such an advocate for just telling them to play. And YOU are singing my song! You so eloquently said what needs to be said. When I was teaching a few years back, (preschoolers), everything I could get my hands on from nature found its way into my class. I brought huge branches to see “what we could Do”, and I secretly cried when I saw how many didn’t know what “mud pies were”. I love this Terri. Personally I think it is easier than many think to just let them play. It really doesn’t even have to cost anything, but time. The kids are usually good at creativity, if given the go ahead. Donna

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  6. I really do think that kids today have lost a great deal in our poorly formulated approach to improving academic performance. Play time is critical both to physical, and to intellectual development – and that’s in addition to socialization skills & emotional well-being. We have succeeded in over-structuring the lives of our children to the point where their creativity, and their ability to think and solve problems for themselves, have been reduced to a damaging extent.

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  7. My grandkids don’t really get any free play. My daughter-in-law will only allow them to be with other kids on scheduled “play dates” where she has already met their parents. They have bikes, but rarely even get to ride them in the neighborhood because she won’t let them outside by themselves, even nearby. It’s so different from when I grew up, and I was all over the place. I think you’re right that it’s primarily fear that drives this behavior, and not totally justified, and it’s really too bad that they can’t enjoy unstructured play, except within their own house and then much of time is spent on their personal electronics devices. They enjoy visiting us and staying over for several days because they get to do things that they don’t do at home with their parents. We take them to the park, play tennis and hit golf balls on the driving range, get ice cream sundaes at Sonic, play indoor glow-in-the-dark miniature golf, bowling, go to the lake, etc. It might be fun to take them camping.

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    1. Wow, what a fun grandpa you are! My grandparents did similar things when I was young back in the 60s, many of the things you do with yours. It really is too bad. Thanks for the comment!! Always love hearing from you!


  8. Chris Jurewicz

    Really good post. Last night, my son and I spent some time in the front yard, playing in the snow. I cherish these times and want him to grow up just playing.

    We signed him up for ski lessons this year, which is his one “standard” lesson for the winter.

    I’m going to reserve The Last Child in the Woods right now (from the library!). Appreciate the suggestion.


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  9. When I was a kid I could not wait to go outside and hated coming in at night. Now, I spend my day in sedentary activities. Aches and pains discourage me. Still, I take the grandkids to the park and they run all over, play in the creek, climb trees, and have a great time. I cry that kids can’t go out on a playground and play whatever.

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  10. Yes I agree with you on this Terri. Grateful my children grew up on this small Island where my husband and I still live. The neighborhood community of 250 people, was the whole Island as it’s only about 3 miles long, and all the children there had free rein to play on the shore, make forts in the bushes etc.. We never worried about them, if something happened or they got into mischief you would hear about it pretty quick because everyone knew what kid belonged to which parent. This was during n the 80-90’s. I cringe when I hear the term “Play Date.” I suppose a product of the New Fear of Free Play. Sad.

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  11. Martha Kennedy

    Great post! I am personally not sure that intellectual development is such a valuable thing in our culture as it was once. We’re a culture controlled by fear now, fear of stuff happening to us, fear of not getting the grades, fear, fear, fear. Millennials I taught were often afraid to be on their own to solve a problem.

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  12. Times have been so different and it is crazy to see how play times gets cut back everywhere. Thanks for this post and the reminder about the importance of something that seemes so normal when I grew up.

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