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The Lost Art of Unstructured Play Could be Costing our Children

By HERWriter
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losing the art of unstructured play may cost our children Maxim Kazmin/PhotoSpin

Generational Shift in Playtime

Modern American parenting says that, in order for our children to turn into well-rounded adults, we need to expose them to as many world experiences as possible. The thinking is that the knowledge gained through these experiences will increase the chances of lifelong happiness and success. Failure to provide these opportunities for your child is often viewed as a form of neglect. (1)

Most of us long for the days — and long for our kids to experience the days — that we had when we just played outside in the front yard, built snow forts and tree houses and club houses out of old pieces of wood; when we used our imaginations and didn’t come home until supper time.

While there are some obvious safety issues now, I think many of us have lost sight of the basic premise that children still need to play — they still need to be children.

With today’s society so strongly holding on to this idea that our kids are better for having as many structured activities as possible, we’ve lost the appreciation for the value of unstructured play in terms of our children’s over-all development.

Unstructured playtime — the kind many of us grew up with — is now viewed as a waste of time.

Are Current Parenting Trends Hurting our Kids?

Research from the University of Michigan shows that, over the past 20 years, there has been a drop of 12 hours a week in free time overall for children ages 3 to 12, “with unstructured activities like walking or camping falling by 50 percent – and structured sports going up by 50 percent.” (1)

We think all this structure helps our children later on in life, and yet no one can deny the alarming rise in teen suicides, and anxiety and stress levels in college students. According to the American College Health Association, “61% of college students had feelings of hopelessness during the previous academic year, 45% felt so depressed they had trouble functioning, and 9% suffered suicidal ideation.”

"Several studies have linked feelings of anxiety and depression with that of perfectionism and an over critical self-evaluation. Other studies have linked this perfectionism with highly critical parents who instill pressures to excel.” (3)

Some experts believe that today’s pressured, ultra-structured lifestyle has also been a contributing factor to these results although it must be stressed that no direct evidentiary link has yet been found between the amount of unstructured playtime and these numbers.

However, the question remains — is our highly-structured lifestyle really benefitting our children in the long-run?


1. How to Let Kids Be Kids. Newman, Judith. Redbook Magazine. Web. May 27, 2013.

2. Playtime. Hayward, Kristine. Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. Web. May 27, 2013.

3. The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds. Ginsburg, Kenneth R. American Academy of Pediatrics.
http://www.pediatrics.org/cgi/doi/10.1542/peds.2006-2697 Web. May 27, 2013.

4. Child Activities: The Importance of Unstructured Play Time. Loving Your Child. Web. May 27, 2013.

5. Connecting with Your Child Through Play. Barbour, Ann. PBS.org. Web. May 27, 2013.

Reviewed May 28, 2013
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.


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