All work and no play for children: losing their childhood and their happiness?

In primary schools, playtimes have become shorter and school days longer. Outside school, road safety, stranger dangers and cyber play have drastically reduced our kids’ opportunity for social interaction and free play. Is diminishing playtime affecting the well-being of our children? Pam Jarvis in the International Journal of Play discusses the importance of play and the damaging outcomes for kids when they don’t have enough.

A Department for Health commissioned survey in 2004 concluded that 1 in 10 British children aged 5-16 are diagnosed with mental disorders. Childhood stress, psychological problems and self-abuse are increasing.

Gone are the hazy days when kids could run free all day and play. Urbanisation has had many implications for childhood play but at the core humans are still ‘hunter-gatherers’ and need to seek out knowledge of ‘being social’ through experience and discovery. Through play “ children develop… an emergent sense of competence … feelings of belonging , usefulness , and subsequent well-being”. When deprived of play, children lack social connectivity and have less ‘mental wellness’. Is lack of play contributing to a dysfunctional society?

Childhood free play is the basis on which individuals develop many crucial social skills which equip them for the intricacies of life in adult communities. UNICEF states, free play in peer groups helps children “ learn and practise the control of aggression, the management of con fl ict, the earning of respect and friendship, discussion of feelings, appreciation of diversity, and awareness of the needs and feelings of others ”. With play at the core of children’s social development, why are we continually degrading it?

Play is a global universal; throughout evolution it has always been important. The authors urge UK/US policy makers to rethink and reinstate the importance of play vs. adult-led learning. They conclude that increased opportunities for free play are the key to organic development of a healthy generation.


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