Freedom to Play and Child Development

What is the role of play for child development? Play seems so insignificant or even potentially dangerous for our goal-oriented, safety-minded society. But research seems to point to the complete opposite conclusion and the larger implications need to be taken seriously:

“On the basis of such research, Sandseter[1] wrote, in a 2011 article in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, “We may observe an increased neuroticism or psychopathology in society if children are hindered from partaking in age adequate risky play.” She wrote this as if it were a prediction for the future, but I’ve reviewed data—in Free to Learn and elsewhere[5]–indicating that this future is here already and has been for awhile.

“Briefly, the evidence is this. Over the past 60 years we have witnessed, in our culture, a continuous, gradual, but ultimately dramatic decline in children’s opportunities to play freely, without adult control, and especially in their opportunities to play in risky ways. Over the same 60 years we have also witnessed a continuous, gradual, but ultimately dramatic increase in all sorts of childhood mental disorders, especially emotional disorders.

“Look back at that list of six categories of risky play. In the 1950s, even young children regularly played in all of these ways, and adults expected and permitted such play (even if they weren’t always happy about it). Now parents who allowed such play would likely be accused of negligence, by their neighbors if not by state authorities.”

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