There was a time when kids played outside, often barefoot, until their moms called them in for dinner. When playing baseball meant rounding up a few kids in the neighborhood, forming teams and delegating a leader to enforce the rules. A time when falling into bed in dirty clothes was OK because changing into clean pajamas seemed too exhausting after a play-packed day. Sadly, those days seem to be over.

Kids today are more likely to be enrolled in structured activities and summer enrichment programs than they are to spend endless hours outside with friends and family members. That’s a shame, really, because highly structured activities can take away a valuable piece of childhood: free play.

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What’s getting in the way of play?

A variety of factors have reduced free playtime for today’s kids. Besides structured activities, these include hurried lifestyles, changes in family structure and a focus on academics and enrichment programs. According to a report from the Alliance for Childhood, a nonprofit partnership concerned with the health and well-being of children, kids spend 50 percent less time in unstructured outdoor activities than children did in the 1970s.

The decline in play affects kids' physical health, warns the group. On average, children between ages 10 and 16 spend just 12.6 minutes per day engaged in vigorous physical activity.

Kids may also be missing out on mental health benefits of free play, according to a 2011 article published in the American Journal of Play by Boston College researcher and play expert Peter Gray, PhD. These benefits include helping them develop intrinsic interests, learn how to solve problems, exert self-control, regulate emotions and experience joy, says Gray, author of “Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students For Life.”

Andy Smithson, a licensed clinical social worker and founder of TRU Parenting, a parent education program, agrees that play is essential to a child’s overall well-being. “Unplanned play is one of the greatest catalysts for growth,” he says. “When all of the lessons and summer camps come to a close, when the organized sports come to an end, it will be free play that allows your child to learn just because he wants to.”

Whether that means sculpting a menagerie of animals out of Play Doh with a best buddy or spending a whole afternoon playing hide-and-seek with a crowd of neighborhood kids of all ages, your child will learn and grow simply by engaging in self-directed play. 

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Benefits of free play

Here’s what else free play can do for your child.

Improve social interaction skills. Both in school and at home, adults tend to intervene when children struggle to get along. We want to teach them to listen, respond appropriately and resolve the problem. While guiding children through the ups and downs of social interactions is important, children also need opportunities to practice these skills independently.

Unstructured play with one friend — or seven — is a gateway to improved social skills. Left to their own devices, kids need to plan what and how they’re going to play, negotiate themes and rules, choose roles and keep the play going. They have to learn to communicate effectively and consider the feelings of others involved in the play. In other words, they have to work things out.

Strengthen family relationships. In a hurried world full of beeping gadgets and packed schedules (for kids and parents), it can be difficult to find time to connect. When parents shut off their phones and sit down to play with their kids, they enter the secret worlds of their children. They learn about them, bond with them and help them work through their feelings. Family play opens the door to improved relationships and positive communication.

“Play, with no other motive than just being together in a happy environment,” says Smithson, “can have far reaching affects on the lives of our children as well as on our lives as parents."

Develop emotional regulation. Tantrums are one of the most feared issues in parenting. Books and articles on eliminating tantrums abound for parents searching for ways to help kids stay calm. What parents need to recognize, though, is that tantrums can be triggered by stress and unhappiness. When kids are overtired, constantly on the go and lack time for unstructured play, they’re more likely to feel stress.

Here’s where play can help. Through free play, kids tap into their imaginations. They figure out what makes them happy. They stave off boredom. They set goals. They work through overwhelming emotions. They learn about themselves. They can’t do any of those things, however, if they don’t have the opportunity to get out and plan their own time.

What children need is the gift of free, unstructured time. They need outside play, independent play and play with other kids. They need to make the rules, call the shots and take control of their own happiness. And that begins with opening the door and letting them out to do their thing.

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Katie Hurley, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and writer. She is the author of the forthcoming “The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World.”

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