Study: Kids, Parents, Teachers Benefit from Kids’ Free Play

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February 25, 2021 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors

Lenore Skenazy has long argued for parents and the state to give kids a freer range to be what they are – kids.  “Helicopter parenting” has no more fervent and informed critic than Skenazy. 

I’ve always been one of her strong supporters because what she says and what she stands for, to me, make sense.  That’s partly because of my background.  I was definitely what Skenazy would call a “free range kid” and I value the experience.  The closest my mother ever got to a helicopter was to tell us kids to be home before dark and to watch out for snakes.  I can’t begin to express the value of that freedom to me, both then and now.  Inventing your own games with their own rules is worlds apart from being taught to play soccer.

So to me, it’s crystal clear that children need time away from their parents’ watchful eyes.  They need time and freedom to try and fail, to try and succeed, to try, fail, make adjustments and try again.  They need to be able to hang out with their peers and find their niche among other people.  That’s how they learn and how they mature.  And almost none of that will result in any lasting injury to the child.  Children today in the U.S. are overwhelmingly safe.   For parents, teachers, the police, CPS or anyone else to try to substitute their own adult learning for a child’s lived experience is a recipe for failure. 

Of course my own lived experience as a child may be nothing more than coincidental; it may be simply a fluke that my upbringing succeeded well for me and the kids I knew.  After all, what my parents and my friends’ parents did and my take on what they did is hardly a scientific study of the matter. 

But now there is such a study and it confirms what Skenazy, I and countless others have believed for a long time.  Giving children free time to experiment on their own and with their peers is beneficial to them and to others.  This is something I shouldn’t have to say.  It’s something that eons of parents have known and would shake their heads in disbelief to know that we in the 21st century have to relearn it.  But, in one of the safest countries for children in the history of the world and at one of the safest times for them, we took a side road toward ever greater adult oversight of children and now need to return to the main highway, the one that’s marked “Let Kids Be Kids.”

This report on the new study has this to say (IF Studies, 1/6/21):

In response to the recognized crisis in childhood play, the researchers were curious to see the results of one attempt to mitigate the problem. [Researchers Cohen and Parrott] identified the commitment by one school superintendent to increase play time during the day by requiring 40-minutes of recess in all seven of the district’s elementary schools, along with initiating a Let Grow Play Club before school one day per week. Cohen and Parrott then studied both the effect on students as well as what teachers had to say about the impact of these changes. 

“Students perceived Play Club as helping them to stay focused during school, improve their mood, and to socialize and make new friends,” the researchers report. “Much of what elementary students do during recess—including making friends, deciding what is fair, and developing rules for games—involves social skills.” But “social skills” aren’t what made the biggest difference. One participant said that he had few friends in his grade, but that the Play Club allowed him to meet and make friends in other grades. “I liked that I made new friends,” he said. 

One teacher remarked that a girl whose personality was more forceful and commanding (aka bossy) found it possible to self-regulate when involved in the Play Club because younger kids were looking to her to keep the play going and she in turn was motivated to maintain their involvement and enjoyment. “I think longer recess [and the Let Grow Play Club] really does help—them being able  to  socialize,  problem  solve,  and  be  creative  in  what they’re playing, then adapt their game to meet different hurdles and challenges that they come across while playing,” one teacher told researchers. 

Overall, teachers felt the impact of free play before school and longer recess time during the day helped with the students’ ability to concentrate in the classroom. “They are more focused when they come back and start to get into the academics of their school day,” a teacher reported.

According to the researchers, “teachers do not believe that students have enough unstructured play at home but do believe there are benefits to having unstructured play incorporated within the school day.”

The study is obviously not a definitive one.  Self-reported attitudes can never be taken without a grain of salt.  Still, its results comport with common sense, so I suspect other researchers will do other studies to try to flesh out the benefits or detriments of free play versus activities closely monitored by adults.  I also suspect that Lenore Skenazy will be one of the people encouraging that inquiry.

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