No time to play

Today’s children don’t have time to play independently — and to develop social skills — writes psychologist Peter Gray on Aeon. The adults are always in charge.

Growing up in the 1950s, Gray had a “hunter-gatherer education” in addition to formal schooling. The neighborhood kids played after school, often till dark, in mixed-age groups. They played on the weekends and in the summer.

We had time to explore in all sorts of ways, and also time to become bored and figure out how to overcome boredom, time to get into trouble and find our way out of it, time to daydream, time to immerse ourselves in hobbies, and time to read comics and whatever else we wanted to read rather than the books assigned to us.

Since then, adult-directed sports for children have replaced “pickup” games, Gray writes. free-to-learn Adult-directed extracurriculars have replaced hobbies. Parents are afraid to let kids play without supervision.

As children’s free play has declined, children have shown more signs of anxiety and depression, he writes on psychological surveys. Since the ’50s, “the suicide rate for young people aged 15 to 24 has more than doubled, and that for children under age 15 has quadrupled.”

In addition, surveys show “a decline in empathy and a rise in narcissism.”

Children aren’t learning social skills through play, writes Gray. At school, an authoritarian setting, they learn to compete rather than cooperate. Extending the school day will widen the “play deficit” even more, argues Gray.

A Boston College professor, Gray writes the Freedom to Learn blog, and is the author of a new book, Free to Learn.

Kids who want to work — mowing lawns — face “safety” barriers, writes Mollie Hemingway. On the neighborhood listserv, someone asked for feedback on “a group of adorable and entrepreneurial kids (young, maybe 9-11 years old)” looking for mowing jobs. “We didn’t see a parent with them supervising.”

A link was provided to Mowing the Lawn Can Be a Dangerous Chore, which recommended “polycarbonate protective eyewear” for anyone mowing — or in the vicinity.

About Joanne


  1. I was a latch-key kid in the 1970’s and early 80’s, and our “hunter-gatherer education” included vandalism, trespassing, lying to parents, playing with fire, shoplifting, unhealthy (sometimes abusive) sexual experimentation, having bikes stolen, trash-picking, and many hours wasted watching boring TV shows (The Mike Douglas show, anyone? soap operas? cartoons weren’t available between 9am and 3pm, and there was only an episode or two of Twilight Zone in the middle, so we watched a lot of Bonanza and Big Valley, too).

    Sure, we also played at the park (occasionally encountering the guy who liked to nap near the kiddie area with his legs spread and his penis poking out of his short-shorts), rode our bikes all over, roller-skated around the neighborhood, and read a lot of library books. But I wouldn’t say the good outweighed the bad, and I consider myself very fortunate that I can be one of those stay-home moms who supervises their kids’ play!

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      Actually, the idealized ‘kids play’ sort of demands a neighborhood of stay at home moms. We road bikes, roller bladed, played in the creek, etc. etc. BUT we were allowed that kind of freedom because 90% of the moms in the neighborhood were home. When we were down at the creek, the Moms from the houses that overlooked it were watching (which is how our parents knew if we disobeyed the set ‘creek rules’ for where we could wade, and how deeply.) If we were biking and rollerblading, there were people in their yards weeding. We had the illusion of freedom, but the supervision of adults too… and I imagine hunter-gatherers are much the same.

      The difference is that adults didn’t interfere in our play 99% of the time. (The one memorable time was when a bunch of the boys found a nest of cute baby snakes which turned out to be copperheads. The parents all came from no where over that one…)

      So… the idealized ‘wholesome childhood’ actually requires an adult presence… but it also requires adults who will stand back until there’s actually a crisis. The problem today is that kids at one end of the spectrum have freedom but no supervision, and kids at the other end have supervision, but no freedom.

      • Deirde, that’s a really good way to put it. I was just realizing that, oddly enough, about the only place my kids do have that kind of freedom is at church, after services, when there are enough parents around chatting with each other that all the kids are under general supervision but they can still play unimpeded. Your childhood neighborhood sounds nice! But I don’t think there’s any going back to it.

        • Deirdre Mundy says:

          My kids have some of that now– there are a fair number of other homeschooling families in our neighborhood, the town is really safe, and there are a lot of older adults outside all the time…. no creek, because we;re downtown, but a park and yard and places to ride bikes.

          You can still have this sort of childhood, but it has to be in flyover country!

          Suburbs are basically depopulated during the day, so no, kids can’t roam.

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the responses to this broke down on sex lines.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      Which is sort of my way of saying that I disagree with both Sharon and DM, by the way.

      My friends and I were *genuinely* unsupervised from age 8ish on.

      Mistakes were made, as they say. But that’s a feature, not a bug.

    • Not entirely, Michael. Kids of both sexes could ride their bikes (age maybe 9 and up) off into the wild blue yonder where I grew up — an inner ring suburb of a small city (Hartford, CT) that was rural on the outskirts. Rode the bus to downtown Hartford starting at age 9; I will say that there were a few older boys that we were admonished to avoid.

  3. Kirk Parker says:

    Since then, adult-directed sports for children have replaced “pickup” games, Gray writes.

    Really? I guess I just passed through childhood at the lucky have-it-all moment: all the after-school, weekend, and summer freedom you could want, but *still* managed to get in Little League baseball, some kind of basketball league on Saturdays in the winter, and Summer School band.

  4. Kirk Parker says:


    In my experience the parents weren’t always close. In grade school we rode our bikes *everywhere*, including quite a few still-forested areas around our Puget Sound suburb. No parents remotely within earshot, and the ones who were close had no idea who we were. Still no harm done. (And the truly dangerous stuff, like building a 4-story tree house with the top floor at least 30′ off the ground *with absolutely no walls or railings*, we did right in our own back yards.)