The urge to supervise our kids and provide help when they need it is necessary and natural. That said, our progeny are often more capable than we want to admit, and letting them fulfill their totally normal urge for adult-free playtime is genuinely important. It’s a time when kids learn a lot about themselves, because they’re busy developing essential social and life skills that can only be gained through hands-on experience.
Shifting Play Style Norms
A few decades ago, to be a child was to be outside. Coming home well after dark with grass-stained knees and a jar full of lightning bugs was the definition of a summer night. Over time, changing perceptions about unsupervised play being unsafe led to many parents limiting solo play, particularly outdoors. As the pursuit of high test scores and prestigious achievements became further ingrained in our cultural lexicon, study sessions, practices and events also began to supersede time formerly reserved for free play.
While structured participation has demonstrable benefits for children, it can’t replace the benefits of adult-free time. Solo exploration offers huge contributions to child development, because it offers opportunities for them to make their own decisions and learn from the challenges they tackle. When kids play and explore socially without adults, they’re also learning what’s socially acceptable and how to get along with their peers. Compromise, negotiation and mediation are all skills kids learn organically through free play.
The Consequences of Captivity
Public focus on mental health has drastically increased, and for good reason – there’s been an exponential rise in the number of people suffering. Studies have indicated that depression and anxiety rates among high school and college students have increased by an estimate of five to eight times. Research has also proven that young people feel less in control of their fate, leading to negative personal consequences.
There’s reason to believe that the shift toward material and external goals and a lack of independent childhood exploration may play a part in these numbers. It’s been demonstrated that free play is part of how our kids develop their identity, self-confidence and sense of their place in the world. It also helps them to be more resilient, overcome their fears and improve their ability to solve problems.
What Does Adult-Free Play Offer Kids?
There’s nothing we wouldn’t give our kids, and the opportunity to grow independently of us is one of the most beautiful gifts we can offer them. It makes them stronger physically, emotionally and cognitively, it helps to minimize issues with stress and anxiety, and it helps them discover themselves and the world in new and important ways. It teaches them to empathize with peers and embrace new viewpoints while seriously considering decisions and their potential consequences.
From a health standpoint, outdoor free play offers kids the opportunity to develop a healthy love of physical activity, which is accompanied by a lowered risk of obesity. Socially, it makes them better friends who are more likely to readily accept leadership roles when offered. The self confidence and social skills offered by adult-free time make the transition into the school years easier, as kids find their place and make friends quickly. Simply put, there’s a lot to gain from childhood independence, and a lot to lose when it’s put on the back burner.
Easing Your Concerns
In an era where we’re overloaded with information, it’s hard to process the fact that we need to let our kids play outside without us while we’re also bombarded with news stories that make that seem scary. Statistically, this is one of the safest times in history to be a child in America, and our kids are no worse off outside than we were.
The truth is simply that the drastic increase and reach of news media in the last few decades leaves us feeling like our day in age is particularly unsafe, which isn’t true. A psychological phenomenon known as the backfire effect explains how media bias has skewed our perception of our kids’ safety for years. When we are exposed to more incidences of an event, we’re more likely to think it will happen, even when it is no more statistically likely to do so.
Adult-free time is part of what makes happy, healthy kids. Even though the world is a lot more complex than it was a few decades ago, it’s still crucial for kids to leave screens, schedules and parents behind for free play sometimes. The benefits are innumerable, and the detriments of skipping out on it are severe. Giving our children a chance to shine through independent free play sets a great pace for their essential personal development.