How Can We Restore Children’s Independent Outdoor Play?

I’m asking for your ideas about how to make real play possible for kids again.

By Peter Gray Ph.D.  Freedom to Learn

Children are designed, by nature, to play with other children independently of adults. Generally, the best place for them to play is outdoors, partly for the fresh air, vigorous exercise, multitude of play opportunities, and exposure to nature that the outdoors provides; but also because, traditionally, that is the best place for children to get out from under the thumbs of adults. To grow up well, children need to get away from adults and, in that way, learn how to create their own activities, solve their own problems, and get along with peers without recourse to authority figures.

Children everywhere, throughout human history until very recently, spent huge amounts of time outdoors, with peers, away from adult control, and that is how children have always learned the most important lessons that we all must learn for a satisfying life. In recent decades, however, a variety of social changes have conspired to make it almost impossible for children to go outdoors, away from interfering and controlling adults, and find other children with whom to play and explore.

We are now, sadly, witnessing the consequences of play deprivation, including huge, well-documented increased rates of depressionanxiety, and suicides among young people and well-documented declines in an internal locus of control, creative thinking, and psychological resilience. Here are some of my previous Psychology Today essays that contain evidence concerning children’s needs for free play and the consequences of play deprivation:

• The Decline of Play and Rise of Children’s Mental Disorders

• The Culture of Childhood: We’ve Almost Destroyed It

• As Children’s Freedom Has Declined, So Has Their Creativity

• Risky Play: Why Children Love It and Need It

• Free Play is Essential for Normal Emotional Development

So now the question is: What can we do to restore children’s freedom for independent play and thereby restore their mental and physical health?

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