Allowing more unsupervised free play is among the most powerful and least expensive ways to bring down rates of mental illness
Thank you for this.
I work with canines. Not to compare them to children but the dogs that I care for who are the healthiest and happiest are the ones who are given opportunities to socialize and play freely and engage with nature on a regular basis. They are confident, curious, independent and have good, strong relationships. They also make better choices, especially in stressful situations. If it works for them, it must also work for children?
We are pack animals and require connection and collaboration to grow and thrive.
Obviously proper rest and nutrition are key contributors as well but let’s start with kicking the kids back outside to explore and play. You won’t regret it! (Except maybe the dirt that gets tracked in the house 😉)
Colorado recently passed a “Free-Range Parenting Law.”
“... Colorado is the first blue state to pass the legislation. That's great, because at Let Grow, the nonprofit that grew out of Free-Range Kids, we have always maintained that childhood independence is a bipartisan issue. Many Republicans appreciate our work to promote can-do kids and keep the government out of everyday family decisions, and many Democrats appreciate the same exact thing.
The new law narrows the definition of neglect, making it clear that a child is not neglected simply because a parent lets them engage in normal childhood activities, like playing outside without adult supervision or staying home alone for a bit.”
> With every decade children have become less free to play, roam, and explore alone or with other children away from adults, less free to occupy public spaces without an adult guard, and less free to have a part-time job where they can demonstrate their capacity for responsible self-control.
We complain about kids (and especially teenagers) behaving like animals, but never stop to reflect on the near-ubiquitous custom of keeping them in cages.
I wonder if unsupervised play requires a broadly shared moral order? I suspect it might.
If everyone in your society essentially sees the world the same way, leaving your children to explore is relatively safe. This sort of cultural homogeneity is attainable in lots of ways: very small towns, countercultural groups, churches, even gang-banger neighborhoods probably exhibit some of this.
Whether it's a hippie commune or a homeschool group, I suspect children are granted more freedom precisely because each parent has confidence other parents are training their children in roughly the same values.
However, if your group is of heterogeneous culture and philosophy, it makes the parents (and associated children) more difficult to predict and therefore more dangerous. The fact is, a parent who sees the world radically differently than you truly can be dangerous. In an extreme case, perhaps he thinks killing people in defense of his faith is acceptable. Perhaps he thinks sexual contact with children is acceptable. In less dramatic fashion, perhaps she lets her kids have an unfiltered smartphone. Or perhaps she's on a crusade to queer childhood? These aren't abstract fears; they're quite real. Communities that lack shared cultural values also tend to lack trust. And parents are wise to be careful in such settings.
So, perhaps the decline in unstructured play is merely reflective of the decline in shared American values and associated trust across the board.
Thank you for letting us know, Prof Gray rocks! I think your work on smartphones might not be so far from his conclusions, if you look at it like this: his argument is that the sandlot is better than little league, ie it seems like baseball to us, but the kind that kids come up with themselves is way, way better for their minds and souls than the kind with coaches telling them what to do. Well, with smartphones and social media, all those algorithms are carefully programmed by adults, so even though there's the illusion of independence, it seems like the kid is in charge of his social media experience, it's really a bunch of advertisers/silicon valley executives/programmers/etc. Like little league, it's a simulacrum of independence, not the real thing -- it's all about being programmed! Prof Gray is all about kids playing freely - free of adults, including the ones that program their minds via social media. So I think it dovetails nicely, if any of that was comprehensible : )
Thank you, thank you, thank you! We are trying so hard to parent counter-culturally right now. I have four kids, from kindergarten to late teens. No phones for our kids until 15 years old.
We welcome other kids to play at our house with the younger ones, but I try to let parents know that I will not be checking in on them every 10 minutes. I will not be directing their play. I will not be arranging cooking or crafts, and I will not be sending them pictures of their play escapades. OK, I don’t say all of that… 😂
Many families and friends think we are “irresponsible” in the way that we do things because we don’t hover, and only our oldest teen has a phone, so I can’t check up on the rest of them constantly. Seems to me that our kids who are quite motivated and engaged in things like youth group, civil air patrol, scouts, various school, sports, part – time jobs, reading and the like are doing just fine.
Do video games and games played on smartphones NOT count as play? Because if they do count, I would offer that kids today play more than I did as a child of the '60s and '70s.
The article is quiet concerning screen-based games as play. Why? Is there a quality of that kind of play that is unfulfilling? If so, why is this not unpacked and compared against more fulfilling types of play? Perhaps we need a definition of what actually constitutes play for kids and what doesn't.
For instance, is it only group play that counts? Play that involves movement and running around? Would playing a board game count as play?
Not sure what to make of this article in light of this. Can we get further insights that address the issue of video games and what constitutes fuilfilling play for children and teens?
Free range parenting is where it’s at. Kids are happier and it makes a parent’s job so much easier not worrying that you need to be monitoring the little goblins all day.
There's a critical piece missing from this analysis. Free to roam sounds great in theory but differences in family values and access to technology is the major impediment. Most kids in the neighborhood carry "online" with them at all times while in the "real world". I don't need my kid climbing trees with the neighbor kid who's got a phone so they can look at porn from the treetops. I suppose I can "supervise their free play" but the supervision would seem to defeat the purpose. On the other hand, try convincing all the parents in the organized neighborhood play group to ban tech from the group. It's much harder than it seems.
Playing a video game provides autonomy and competency, but, depending on the type of game, can lack opportunity for relatedness. If you have ever put on a pretend theatrical show with your friends or gone on an adventure in a real place, you will understand that video games are very different from in-person play in the real world. In my opinion, they don’t prepare children for dealing with as many of the real situations they are going to encounter as they grow as does actually playing in the world with other flesh and blood children with whom they can physically interact.
My mother was born in 1936. She tells countless stories of playing with her friends in inner-city Detroit. Those kids played in ways kids today wouldn’t even imagine. They had fun, they explored, they learned how to deal with all sorts of people and situations, and they did it in the real world in which they were going to have to live and survive as adults. Their play prepared them for their futures. They play arranged for my young relatives doesn’t seem as if it is giving them much true life experience. They play organized sports in which problems of all sorts are solved by the coaches. My mom, and also myself, played unorganized sports where conflicts were solved by the children. Kids should have opportunities to play both, in my ideal world.
I agree with Dr. Gray that not allowing children to play unsupervised is doing them harm. I saw the difference in my young relatives when the schools stopped offering recess: it was abrupt and negative. I don’t know how the powers that be can think removing free play from children’s lives can be beneficial. Our children are dying. Even if it’s still just a correlation between lack of free play and the deteriorating mental health of our children, allowing them to play on their own as they themselves feel they need to do is an easy treatment to try.
Me and my buddies regularly left school grounds in the fourth grade during recess. We hung out in an abandoned shack on the nearby farm in rural north Louisiana. Obviously, this isn’t the answer, but it sticks with me 50 years later as a great adventure. When I tell kids about it now, they are amazed.
I was fortunate enough to send all three of my kids to a Waldorf school. In fact, we moved out of state so that they could go to a really good one, and I could be the Administrator (like a principal) there. We also jettisoned our television, which was truly the best thing (other than loving our kids as fully as possible) we ever did as parents. I write about that here: https://marypoindextermclaughlin.substack.com/p/best-thing-we-ever-did-as-parents
Waldorf has its flaws, but the education is BASED on childhood play, which is essential. And for those who ask, "aren't video games play?" I would say. yes, that's a type of play, but not the kind that calms the nervous system and nourishes the imagination.
In my experience, it's the interaction with real, live elements (earth, water, trees, sky, etc.) and human beings that is inherently healing/calming. I have zero data to back that up, btw. I'm making observations from witnessing my own children and the children at the Waldorf school, vs. those who spent much of their childhoods in front of video games.
Thank you for introducing me to Peter Gray's substack! This is a topic that I find so important and one that I try to support in my area as an educator. Kids need more free play to develop critical shared imagination skills which are a building block for positive social skills. Schools need to get back to supporting more free play along with getting computers out of the hands of kids all day at school!
I’m 100% all about free play. What I don’t see in this and similar articles I’ve read by both Jonathan and Peter is a recognition and analysis of WHY parents are making these choices.
As a working mom, I’m constantly bombarded with messaging that my job is to keep my children safe and protected from every possible danger. The moment I allow my older child to walk around the block unsupervised, I get harassed by neighbors who threaten to call the police, who are mandated reporters who must report me to CPS for suspected child neglect. My upper-elementary-age child’s summer camp requires parents to walk into the park district building and sign them in daily; I can’t even just drop them at the door this year, because there has to be a direct handoff between the parent and the camp staff. This means that I must park, get my older and younger child out of the car, walk them inside and upstairs, and sign a paper, before returning to my car with my younger child and dropping them off at daycare. Children apparently can’t be trusted to enter a building and find the camp room without adult supervision. It’s truly insane. I work from home full time and would happily have my older child home during the summer, but they would be bored out of their mind, because all of their friends’ parents are working, so their friends are at summer camp. (Younger child, meanwhile, is too young to understand that the world doesn’t revolve around them and that mommy needs to work, so having them home isn’t an option; we have them in a very play-focused daycare setting.) We regularly have neighbors and friends over for child-directed play after camp or school or on weekends, but these have to be organized by parents because the children (fortunately!) do not have cell phones or email and everyone’s schedule is dependent upon the parents’ work schedules. We want to give our children more independence, but without organized support from the community, it feels like we are swimming against a very strong current!
I live in a big city and most people now raise their children (if they choose to have any) in small condos because they could never afford to buy or even rent a house. I dread to think how it will effect their children’s mental health, especially when combined with all of the other social ills from which our society suffers.
I am on the cusp of millennial/ gen-z and think we have been primed to be over protective of our children because we lack the ability to regulate ourselves due to lack of socialization. Besides technology, smaller family sizes over multiple generations has played a huge role...most of my friends have one sibling and a couple of cousins that they don’t really know or live close to. As adults, they don’t have any family to help them if they are in need of financial help or become ill, leading to more depression, stress and anxiety. They don’t want more than one child because of the financial cost and lack of social support needed to raise children, so it becomes a compounding problem.
Today, children are often without siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents or even fathers/ mothers in their lives. Plus no religion or connection to a culture that gives them a sense of stable identity or familial-like community. Who can they play with besides AI? I can’t help but think all of our social ills will get worse.
It’s great that you mention part-time jobs. When I was 7, I delivered a twice monthly newspaper to several hundred homes. And when I was 8 I started walking neighbors’ dogs for money. When I wasn’t doing that, I roamed (with friends) around the neighborhood, the forest, the playground, anywhere that fun was to be had. The only time we were inside was when it was raining.
No parents were ever involved. This was the 1970s.