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Important lessons can be learned in unstructured play

Kids today rarely have free time because of safety fears

File illustration (File illustration / The Spokesman-Review)
File illustration (File illustration / The Spokesman-Review)
Jay Hamburg The Orlando Sentinel

Beth Anne Cuda wasn’t sure if she should be proud or worried that her 13-year-old daughter Kacey was phoning and texting her classmates to set up appointments to work on their group homework project.

She was glad to see her daughter step up and take responsibility, but she wondered if she had been teaching her child a bit too much about organization and not enough about free play.

Cuda, who is secretary of the Audubon Park Elementary PTA in Orlando, Fla., began to ask herself, “Is there time to just be?”

It’s a question mothers everywhere are asking about their children, according to a new study by Yale University researchers that was recently published in the American Journal of Play.

Among the study’s key findings: “Mothers from practically all countries (say) that childhood as they know it is over.”

All that striving to achieve in academics, sports and other structured activities has left youngsters little time to be children.

“Parents were pleading that their kids need more free time, but they didn’t know how to find it,” says Jerome Singer, professor emeritus of psychology at Yale.

Singer says although too much free time might amount to loafing, children learn important skills while entertaining themselves with hide-and-seek, cops-and-robbers and games made up on the spot.

“We know that when children play, they learn to play roles, to communicate, to understand other people and to feel like they belong,” he says. “Parents kept saying their kids weren’t having any fun and they weren’t playing like they (the parents) used to.”

Educators in countries such as Finland think that free play is so vital to development that they require unstructured play periods for youngsters at school.

But when children do find free time away from structured activities, the most common activity reported in the 16 countries in the study was watching TV at home.

That’s because the kids didn’t know what to do with unscheduled time and the parents were too worried about safety to let them just roam the neighborhood, Singer says.

How to balance safety with creative free play is a recurring question for parents such as Orlando’s Debbie Cunningham, who is the mother of a 10-year-old boy.

“When I was young we would take off on our bikes and go all over the neighborhood, or ride to the shopping center, or catch a game of kickball in the field, or check out the fort in the woods, or catch tadpoles in the ditch,” she says. “In these changing times … we fear for the safety of our kids and keep them much closer.”

Cunningham says she and her husband, Montje, plan bike rides with their son and try to encourage backyard games of football and baseball.

“Kids’ free time today is not and will never be what it was when we were kids,” Cunningham says.

But sometimes, Cuda just tells her children what parents have been saying for generations: “You have to go outside and do something.”

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