What Happened to Outside Free Play?
Free play—play that children create themselves, without direction from adults—has been on the decline for the past 60 years, according to Dr. Peter Gray, research professor of psychology at Boston College. At Kamik, we know that Outside Free Play has incredible benefits for children. But we also believe that today’s kids are missing out on the offline, no-agenda, creative outdoor play we enjoyed in our childhoods—and we want to change that. Here, Dr. Gray discusses some of the reasons for the decline of play, and offers parents tips on how to bring play back into their kids’ lives.
Why do children today have less time for Outside Free Play?
Dr. Gray explains that, over the past several decades, our society has been chipping away at children’s freedom to play—and, by extension, their freedom to learn and grow.
“Howard Chudacoff [author of Children at Play: An American History] puts the tipping point in 1955,” Dr. Gray says. “At the beginning of the twentieth century in the United States, we’d pretty much done away with intense child labor, and we were going back to a world in which children were spending a lot of time playing. But beginning around 1955, we began gradually to take that freedom away—not to put them back in factories, but [to impose on them] more intense schooling and adult-directed activities instead of real play.”
What are some of the obstacles parents face when it comes to letting their kids play freely outside?
Many parents would like to grant their children more independence, but fear the dangers associated with unsupervised play. Dr. Gray wants parents to understand that the media tends to exaggerate the risks, which leads to excessive worrying.
“Unfortunately, we live in a world where we hear from so-called ‘experts’ all the time, and most of the experts aren’t like me and telling [parents], ‘Let your kids go.’ They’re talking about all the dangers,” says Dr. Gray.
It’s important not to underestimate legitimate safety risks, but Dr. Gray believes parents should also consider the potential consequences of not giving children the freedom they need: “If I don’t allow my child these adventures, I’m running the risk that my child will never develop a sense of confidence, never develop an internal locus of control, will become anxious or depressed at some point in her life because she doesn’t have this sense of being able to solve her own problems.”
For parents, the key is to remember that although Outside Free Play involves a certain level of risk, it’s not inherently dangerous as long as it’s practiced in a safe environment. They can strive to interfere in their kids’ play as little as possible, while keeping an eye out for real dangers.
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What role has technology played in the decline of Outside Free Play?
When there are hardly any kids playing outside, children are even more likely to stay indoors and on their electronic devices, argues Dr. Gray. “People complain that kids are on their iPhone or computer. People think that technology is why [kids] are not outside. I think it’s more the other way around. I think kids go outside and there’s nobody to play with. So, how are they going to communicate with their friends? They get on their cell phone, or back on the computer, and now they’re with their friends. If the only way they can be with their friends is through an electronic device, that’s what they’re going to do.”
As parents, how can we give our kids more freedom?
“Many parents recognize that their fears are somewhat irrational and that they used to [play freely outside] when they were kids,” says Dr. Gray. Still, it can be challenging to overcome these fears. “Lenore Skenazy [one of the founders of Let Grow, an organization dedicated to giving children more independence] has a set of exercises. Your child wants to be able to ride her bicycle around the block, let’s say, but you’re nervous about that. You negotiate, and you say, ‘How about you ride your bike down to the end of the block and back. The first time you do it, I’ll be watching, and then you can do it without me watching.’ It’s like a deconditioning, a gradual step.”
Kamik believes Dr. Gray’s message will resonate with parents. Our family brand is here to encourage families who want to make space for Outside Free Play. For more tips, discussions, and activity ideas, sign up for the Kamik Club newsletter and join our movement.
This interview has been edited and condensed.