Way back in 1997, researchers found that children spent less time in play and had less free time than they did in the early 1980s. They spent 18% more time at school and way more time (145% more) doing school work, and they even spent a lot more time (168% more) shopping with their parents. Things have not got any better in the years since 1997.
Moms and dads who grew up in the 1980s may remember a childhood quite different from the one experienced by their own children. Your childhood was a lot more fun!
Since the 1970s, kids have lost on average nine hours of free play a week – more than an hour per day gone. Kids today get less free time outside. They get less time that is unstructured in which they can choose what to do and how to do it. Kids’ recreational activities these days are likely to be adult-led and adult-supervised.
It’s easy to think that this is “normal,” but instead it seems to be pathological. Psychiatrist Stuart Brown investigated serial killers and found that among other difficulties, they all seemed to have had no chance for fun as children. So Brown went on to interview 6,000 ordinary people about their childhoods, and found that a lack of opportunities for unstructured, imaginative play can keep children from growing into happy, well-adjusted adults. Numerous studies have found that among “ordinary” children, there has been a significant increase in anxiety and depression.
“Free play” is sometimes seen by parents to be a waste of time. It’s easy, in this competitive world, to imagine that children don’t know what’s good for them and that grownups do. It’s easy to want to take charge and organize a child’s time to make every moment count. Unfortunately, what counts is unstructured time. Time to just contemplate, to mess around, and to hang out with friends is critical for becoming socially adept, for coping with stress and for building cognitive skills, creativity, and problem solving abilities.
Does your child have free time each and every day or is his time scheduled from morn till night? Remember that time traveling in the car or bus doesn’t count. Organized sports, lessons, and even practice time doesn’t count. Bits of time and time that’s carved out of the ends of the day when your child isn’t at his best, doesn’t count. Add up the hours your child has each day, all to himself, to do as he chooses. If there’s not enough, make room for more.
There’s nothing that says you can’t put some limits on how your child spends her free time. You may decide to limit video game play and television viewing. You may want to limit time that’s spent shopping or loitering at the mall. But err on the side of letting your child choose how to spend her time. Don’t narrow the options to the point that she really has no choice of her own.
If having unstructured time is something new for your child, you might find at first that she can’t think of anything to do. That’s okay. You might find that instead of using free time “wisely,” as you might think, your child spends her time just sitting or reading comics or playing solitaire. No worries. Eventually, she will find things to do that are satisfying. Even if she doesn’t, the time she has to just think and just relax is precious. Let her have this time.
Downtime. It really is important. Get some for yourself!
- © 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.