Nothing is as natural as a child at play. After a month of little more than eating and sleeping, infants begin to engage in play with their parents and the world around them. Left alone, young children will launch into imaginary play, inventing characters and stories. Put together with peers, children will almost instinctually organize games and activities. Play is so basic to childhood that it is seen even among children in the most dire conditions, in prisons and concentration camps. It is so important to the well-being of children that the United Nations recognizes it as a fundamental human right, on par with the rights to shelter and education. And until recently, American children—finally free from working in the fields or in a factory, as children long had— were allowed to play on their own. In his book Children at Play: An American History, writer Howard Chudacoff describes the first half of the 20th century as a “golden age” of children’s playtime.
Yet today, play is something of an endangered activity among American children. A 2011 article from the American Journal of Play notes that children’s free, unscheduled playtime has been declining steadily over the past half-century. When children do play, it’s more likely to be highly structured—think playdates and enrichment classes. Peter Gray, the author of that article and a psychology professor emeritus at Boston College, says the decline in free play is “at least partly because adults have exerted ever-increasing control over children’s activities,” which should sound familiar to many parents. As even elementary schools come under greater and greater pressure to have their students score well on standardized tests, recess time has been increasingly cut. In 1989, 96% of elementary schools had at least one recess period, yet just a decade later, one survey found that only 70% of even kindergarten classrooms had any recess periods at all.
Gray and other play experts believe these changes have had lasting and negative effects on children. He notes that over the same years that recess and playtime have declined, there have been rises in major depression, anxiety and the suicide rate. “If we love our children and want them to thrive, we must allow them more time and opportunity to play, not less,” Gray has written.
Parents and teachers cutting back on children’s playtime aren’t doing it to be mean— even if it might seem that way to children. They believe that in an increasingly competitive world, there’s less time for a kid to be a kid; that is, free, unstructured play doesn’t have the payoff that another lesson or test-prep class would. They’re restricting playtime because they want their children to thrive. And evolutionary biologists might have once backed them up. Play is, by definition, an activity that has little clear immediate function. That’s what separates it from work or education.