Unstructured time allows children to develop creativity and empathy. But too often, it's missing from the schedule.

"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." It's a folk proverb that was first recorded in English in 1659 (and used to horrific effect in The Shining). Whatever its origin, the truth behind it is self-evident. People who grind away ceaselessly at labor lose their sparkling edge.

And yet play, the old-fashioned kind where kids engage with each other in the physical world and make up the rules as they go along, is harder and harder to come by these days. U.S. schools, under pressure to improve test performance, are increasingly oriented toward a homogenized curriculum that is learned by rote. After grueling schooldays, children are shuttled by automobile from one structured activity to another – if they are from families affluent enough to afford such activities. Many kids live in neighborhoods so dominated by cars that they cannot play safely on the streets or sidewalks near their homes. Parents are terrified by media accounts of stranger abductions (rare though those horrifying incidents are). And so play has steadily eroded.

All of this, argues Peter Gray in a powerful new essay published in Aeon, is resulting in children who are increasingly impaired socially and intellectually -- less creative, less empathetic, and more emotionally unstable. He writes:

The decline in opportunity to play has also been accompanied by a decline in empathy and a rise in narcissism, both of which have been assessed since the late 1970s with standard questionnaires given to normative samples of college students…. A decline of empathy and a rise in narcissism are exactly what we would expect to see in children who have little opportunity to play socially. Children can’t learn these social skills and values in school, because school is an authoritarian, not a democratic setting.

Gray, a psychologist and research professor at Boston College, is the author of a book called Free to Learn, and blogs for Psychology Today at Freedom to Learn.

In the Aeon piece, Gray writes persuasively about the way that the way that children in traditional societies explore risk and social interaction through play. They innovate and structure themselves – precisely the same way that other young animals use play. He says that play allows children to "practice adulthood," and that if we do not allow them to do that, "we create people who will go through life with a sense of dependence and victimisation, a sense that there is some authority out there who is supposed to tell them what to do and solve their problems."

It’s not enough to put our kids into regimented and supervised sports – although evidence continues to mount about just how important physical fitness is to children’s ability to learn. Yet while tightly structured gym classes may provide mechanical exercise, writes Gray, they don’t allow kids to negotiate with each other and to grapple with their own fears and limitations. Instead, children in these situations are taking instruction from yet another adult, and learning yet another predetermined "right" and "wrong" way to behave. Same goes for organized team sports.

The emphasis on testing, and the fetishization of "successful" educational systems that produce high test scores, such as the Chinese model, are quashing our children’s natural creative ability, says Gray. He cites analysis by Kyung-Hee Kim of data from the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, collected over many years across the country, which shows that “all aspects of creativity have declined, but the biggest decline is in the measure called 'creative elaboration,' which assesses the ability to take a particular idea and expand on it in an interesting and novel way."

Gray does not address the way that video games and online play communities might affect children’s mental health and ability to innovate. Some online games, such as the hugely popular Minecraft, do allow for relatively sophisticated social interactions and independent creation. But we evolved to learn our human skills in the real world, and screens just can’t substitute for reality. (Bonus: Louis C.K. on texting, empathy, and why he won’t let his daughters have phones.)

Next week in Baltimore, the first Playful City USA Leaders Summit will convene. Organized by the national nonprofit Kaboom!, which has built more than 2,000 playgrounds around the country over the last 17 years, it will bring together dozens of municipal officials, members of the business community, and nonprofit leaders "to advance our collective efforts to ensure that all children get the play that they need to become healthy and successful adults." The conference is a welcome signal that play is increasingly getting the serious attention it deserves from government, foundations, and business.

The problem is so deep and systemic that it must be addressed at all levels of society, beginning with the family. If you have kids, ask yourself if they are getting enough time to explore and run around. Question whether their schools are putting too much emphasis on testing. Look at how your streets can be made into better places for children to be themselves.

Above all, let children play. So much depends on that.

Top image: Zurijeta /

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