Does play need to be defended? Maybe. Let me explain. Kids have less and less free play time. It has been declining for decades. In an article in the American Journal of Play (Yes, there is such a journal) Dr, Peter Gray states that, “over the past half century or so, in the United States and in some other developed nations, opportunities for children to play, especially to play outdoors with other children, have continually declined. Over this same period, measures of psychopathology in children and adolescents—including indices of anxiety, depression, feelings of helplessness, and narcissism—have continually increased. “
Gray asserts that free play, (an activity that is freely chosen and directed by the participants and undertake for its own sake) is valuable in the psychological development of children.
In the 70’s and 80’s, you could walk through almost any park in America and find kids involved in free play. Today it is hard to find groups of children outdoors much less at parks. And if you do see them there are coaches and refs involved. According to Gray that in the time period between 1981 and 1997 researchers from the University of Michigan found that six to eight-year-olds had a 25% decrease in time spent playing.
Just ask yourself if you are over 30 years old, do you see more kids playing outside compared to when you were a kid? I know it is markedly different today. I’m sure that the lure of television and computers have taken away a lot of that free time, but it is still true that most kids would rather have free play outside if given the opportunity.
Parents also fear allowing their kids to play outside. There is the fear of abduction and getting hurt. Parents just don’t trust that outdoor play is safe anymore.
Unfortunately, over this same time period, childhood and adolescent mental health have declined. Researchers have noted an increase in anxiety and depression, a reduced sense of personal control and increased narcissism.
Because the mental health of children has deteriorated that doesn’t necessarily mean it was caused by a lack of free play. However, there is a growing body of evidence that the two are linked. Free play is by definition an intrinsic activity. There is a reason to believe that a shift from intrinsic motivations and more towards extrinsic motivation children are more apt to feel pressures that in turn breed harmful emotions. Kids today crave adults who provide extrinsic motivation and praise and when that doesn’t meet their expectations they are less secure emotionally. This leads to narcissism.
Gray then list specific ways that play promotes mental health.
1. In Play, Children Develop Intrinsic Interests and Competencies.
Kids play because they want to. It is an intrinsic reward. They aren’t working for the trophy, they aren’t striving for the grade. Instead, they play for their own interests. They develop their own competencies as a result.
2. In Play, Children Learn How to Make Decisions, Solve Problems, Exert Self-Control, and Follow Rules.
When adults ALWAYS direct the kids, boys and girls don’t necessarily learn self-control. They don’t learn how to solve their own problems. When they are involved in free play they have to learn the skills necessary to decide how they are going
3. In Play, Children learn to Regulate their Emotions.
This is a big one. As kids play they are moving their body all over. They are leap and swing. They have to learn how to regulate their bodies and at the same time they have to learn how to regulate their emotions. If it is stressful or fearful, they have to learn how to deal with the situation. I see too many kids who haven’t learned this and when they do engage it is a mess. They are fighting and having meltdowns and don’t know how to regulate their emotions. Play helps them learn the skills needed.
4. In Play, Children make Friends, and Learn to Get Along with Others as Equals.
Kids learn to get along when they play. If someone is not playing nice kids quit. When kids quit even the child who wasn’t playing nice ends up without people with whom to play. Kids also learn how to treat one another
5. Social Play makes Children Happy, and its Absence Makes Them Unhappy.
I think there are a number of takeaways that we need to be mindful of.
I realize that we have only a short time with the boys and girls and that we need to make the most of every opportunity. But maybe sometimes the opportunity is just to play. I also know how I think sometimes. I find a game I like, and I have to think what lesson can I teach? Or I think how can I force a truth into this lesson? I do it all the time. There is nothing wrong with that. Maybe there is a lesson to be learned. But it is just as important to allow kids to develop how God made them. He made them to play. Kids leaders need permission to allow free play.
The church is a place that values the way kids are wired and we need to provide an outlet for their play.
It’s that simple. Play is part of God’s design. How do I know that? I think play is a Scriptural response to God and His creation.
Proverbs 8:29-31 states, New King James Version (NKJV)
29 When He assigned to the sea its limit, So that the waters would not transgress His command,
When He marked out the foundations of the earth,30 Then I was beside Him as a master craftsman;[a] And I was daily His delight, Rejoicing always before Him, 31 Rejoicing in His inhabited world, And my delight was with the sons of men.
I want to be rejoicing always before God. Rejoicing in His creation and delighting in the relationships fostered in play.
I think God can use the church to be a vessel to allow kids to have a safe place to play and learn about Him. I think the church can also be a great agent of reminding parents and society of the need to foster emotionally healthy kids by allowing kids to be kids.
 Gray P. The Decline Of Play And The Rise Of Psychopathology In Children And Adolescents. 3rd ed.; 2011:443-463. Available at: http://www.journalofplay.org/sites/www.journalofplay.org/files/pdf-articles/3-4-article-gray-decline-of-play.pdf. Accessed May 11, 2018.