In a world that seems dominated by screens, we as parents now know that we should be cutting down on screen time and encouraging our little ones to take part in healthy leisure activities. At the same time, when it’s not screens dominating our children’s lives it’s jam-packed schedules. We must ask ourselves, what are the consequences for our kids to be so highly structured in their activities? And when do they get to actually just play?
When I was a child, there was a world outside my front door, a world that was like one big playground. The puddle in the driveway was my own massive lake, where ships made of branches fought scary pirates in dramatic battles at sea. The local park would turn into Nangijala—the magic country of adventure where the Lionheart brothers lived. We could find entertainment in our own fantasies and our surroundings. We would literally lose ourselves in play for hours and create something out of nothing.
Sadly, I believe that many children have largely lost this kind of play, and it worries me. I don’t mean to say that children have stopped playing. It is just that play is often subject to conditions: it is defined by rules, has definite time limits and usually there are numerous restrictions; usually these conditions are controlled by parents.
Many parents think that today’s digital possibilities have destroyed the “good old” way of playing. However, I don’t think that is quite right.
Digitaliation Isn’t the Only One to Blame
As I said earlier, we know that children spend a lot of time looking at screens, but it is too easy to hold gaming consoles and smartphones responsible for this. Despite everything, the digital world still contains wonderful opportunities to prepare our children for the future.
The challenge with the digital world is that it occupies more and more space in a child’s life, which is why we as parents feel we need to do something about it. And so, what do we do? We start to make sure that our children are involved in so many sports and activities that they are left with as little time as possible to actually sit down in front of a screen. Some kids can be enrolled in up to 5 organized activities a week. Now that’s a busy schedule!
Obviously, it is healthy and important to take part in sports and learn in groups. However, when our children have to deal with a busier schedule than their own mother or father, we might be overdoing it. In other words, it is not digitalization that is destroying children’s play; instead, the problem lies in the parent’s reaction to patterns.
Organized Play Suppresses Creativity
Our dedication as parents to get our children into football, dance classes, debate club, student council, isn’t based on what our kids need but on which activities we think will be good for our children.
This ends up leading to adult-led activities at school, in sports clubs and in other organizations. With adults leading the way, they decide how-to play and they end up pushing kids toward a specific and desired outcome. This adds a lot of unnecessary pressure very early on for children that should be focusing on leading their own creative playtime.
With parks and play areas becoming less and less available, children don’t know how to stimulate their curiosity the way we used to. They lose their curiosity and soon become small adults. The time when they are simply allowed to be children without having to “perform” is being stolen from them. Our task as parents is to give it back to them.
As a father and kindergarten teacher, I hate seeing children increasingly lose the precious time where they can simply be kids away from pressure and difficult tasks. Instead, I would like to see them pick flowers, observe tadpoles or simply run around a field without thinking about whether they can shoot enough goals to win the big game or have enough likes online. But do we, as parents, actually do enough to ensure that this is possible?
We need to Rediscover the “Small Playground”
It has become a common misconception that every activity needs to be amazing, incredible and selfie-worthy. We want our kids to have the very best experiences that life has to offer. Yet, we forget that they haven’t even explored the smallest of playgrounds around them. For kids, anywhere is a place to play. From experience, it is the responsibility of parents to make these spaces accessible again.
Play does not need to be expensive or complicated. When we were young, we would head out into the surrounding streets, where we were together with other children of different ages. This is what created a community composed of older and younger children who taught each other things in a playful way. This kind of skill transfer is disappearing, as today, mainly peers play together by way of segmented and organized groups. This means that, as parents, we now take the role of older children and have to make sure that our children can learn to use their surroundings for play and to go on journeys of discovering them.
My strongest memories were of small daily adventures which awakened my curiosity in a natural way—for example, an afternoon when my father took me to go bird watching in front of our apartment building with a bottle of juice and sandwiches in our backpacks. I also remember it because we spent this time together and it was only us two and the birds.
Step outside and play with your kids!
As parents, we should be paying more attention to creating situations and using moments where our children can control their own creativity themselves. Let them lead the way! We must rediscover “small” spaces for play, which are right in front of our doors or on the way home from school. In these “small playgrounds,” even a stone can start a conversation, offer something to learn or provide ideas for a myriad of games, if we are prepared and open to letting this happen.
It doesn’t take a lot of effort: we only need to show our children that as soon as we step out the door, an endless amount of possibilities for play lies before them. You can definitely help them along the way, but the important thing is to simply let the child’s imagination and creativity have free rein.
Through Outside Free Play, the child learns social skills, creativity and a basic understanding of social interaction and problem-solving strategies. In the future job market, creativity, problem-solving skills, innovation and cooperation abilities across departments and teams will be key skills, so we are preparing our children for adult life in the best possible way if we allow them to develop these skills naturally. This is why we need to really de-clutter our children’s schedules and give them time to really be children. Let’s put our phones away and go outside with our kids—just to play!
It’s definitely time for you to #FreeYourPlay!