Let the children play

| March 11, 2021

If you have children or grandchildren, I have a question for you: Do children today spend less time playing compared to when you were their age?

This can be a hard question to answer accurately. According to my experience most people have a very clear response: Children today play less than they parents did in their childhood. Often much less.

Recently we asked nearly 2,000 Australian parents about their perceptions of children’s play. Almost 86 percent of them agreed that children today spend less time playing compared to when they were young. As a consequence, perhaps, 80 percent of respondents thought today children are under pressure to grow up too quickly.

Why should this be a matter of great concern? The world has changed, you may think, and children simply with it. Their parents work longer hours and children are expected to study harder. That’s what is needed if we want to succeed in life. Should we really be worried about the declining playtime?

If you ask children’s doctors, they say we should be very much worried about our kids. As children’s daily playtime has been steady shrinking during the past two decades, their wellbeing and health overall have also suffered. Already before the COVID-19 pandemic there were worrying signs of growing mental health issues among children. Lockdowns and social distancing have made things even worse for many children.

Paediatricians around the world are now campaigning for the new renaissance of play. For example, American Academy of Pediatrics that represents 70,000 children’s medical doctors says that “Play is integral to a child’s education. The importance of playtime for children cannot be overemphasized to parents, schools, and community organizations.” An hour of outdoor play daily is doctor’s order, they say.

Our own research suggests that also parents see absence of play a potential risk factor for their children’s development and learning. When asked about the value of play to children’s wellbeing and development, overwhelming 93 percent acknowledged the benefits play have to grow up happy and healthy. Three-quarters responded that teaching and learning in early years of primary school should be based more on learning through play than what schools do now.

Still, there are many who think that play is something that we do when the real work is completed. Play is often seen as leisure activity separate from productive learning at school. Our survey showed that more than half of parents reject the idea that children should have more play breaks at school every day. Play is OK but not at school, many of them seem to think.

Australia is becoming an outlier in its official position to the role of play in school. Emphasis on play is practically absent in current school development policies and curricula requirements. At the same time, increasing number of governments elsewhere are elevating play-based learning and wellbeing among the top priorities in what schools should do. Increased time for physical activity, outdoor learning and unstructured play are considered the most practical ways to fulfil these new priorities.

Other countries can, so why couldn’t we? In Scotland the National Position Statement on Outdoor Play and Learning states that “Playing and learning outdoors is essential for our children and young people to understand, value, enjoy and protect our natural world. It connects them to their environment, enhancing their appreciation and understanding of its physical properties and diversity.” If Scotland with its much unfavourable weather conditions can do this, why not Australia?

The Finnish Parents’ League, which is the national builder of cooperation between the home and the schools and preschools, advises parents about the important role of play in children’s life: Play inspires children and provides joy. At the same time, children also learn new skills. They process matters that are important to them through play.” All primary and junior high school students in Finland have 15-minute play break after each 45-minute class that they spend in the schoolyard – rain or shine! If the Finns can do, we should as well!

It seems now that learning through play is becoming a new normal in post-pandemic educational recovery. It is indeed the easiest and most economic way to help all children learn those all important ‘21st century skills’ that all schools are required to focus on now. Communication, creativity, collaboration and problem solving are just some of those competences that children develop when they actively engage in play with one another.

What we have learned about the ongoing pandemic is that social isolation and loneliness have decreased wellbeing, and increased depression and anxiety among children and youth. In the Royal Children’s Hospital’s National Child Health Poll in June 2020, one-third of parents reported the pandemic has had negative consequences on their children’s mental health. Almost half said the pandemic had also been harmful to their own mental health.

Good news is that the evidence is clear. Regular play, especially free outdoor play, have wide range of benefits to children’s wellbeing and learning. When children can’t play for any reason, anxiety and toxic stress can harm their healthy development and thereby jeopardise their learning at school. Play can be an effective relief for stress and can help children in building back better in normal social life.

It is time now to take play more seriously in Australia. We should adopt the principle “work hard, play harder” in and out of school. Lessons from previous pandemics shows we need smart and well-coordinated solutions to potentially long-term emotional challenges in children.

We have also learned that by embracing the role of play we can better mitigate the losses and harm children may have experienced while living through a pandemic. Schools have an important role, but parents can do even more. The key solution is simple, let the children play.