Have you ever felt guilty or slightly stressed about your efforts to accomplish 180 days of school? Maybe you have had days where your kids mostly just play.

Well, here’s the good news. Long periods of self-directed play have a significant psychological and cognitive impact on children.

In fact, the public elementary school near my house just held a Global Play Day and counted it as one of their 180 days of school. They are learning what homeschool parents have innately known for a long time—unstructured play is beneficial for children.

The concept of Global Play Day is “to get kids playing freely without adult intervention or structure.” Teachers are instructed: “If you get down on the floor with your kids, be sure to let them just play. Resist the temptation to organize, discipline, and teach.”

It all started with researcher Dr. Peter Gray’s Ted Talk.

Over the last 50-60 years, adults have been taking the gift of unstructured play away from children. Both the school day and the school year have lengthened since the 1950s.

Kids used to play outside in neighborhoods. Now when you find kids outdoors, they are wearing sports uniforms and are participating in highly structured activities organized by adults. Even when children are outside playing, the self-directed aspect of play—what gives play its educative power—has been removed.

Why has play declined? Gray believes there are three main reasons.

1) The increased weight of school.

2) The spread outside the school walls of a “schoolish view” of child development—that children learn everything best from adults and that their own self-directed activities with other kids are a waste of time.

3) The spread of fear in the media. We are warned of constant danger—most of it completely unfounded—if we let our kids play outdoors. So we often give kids more screen time indoors instead.

Once there are fewer kids out playing, the outdoors becomes less attractive and less safe. So, the one kid out there finds nobody to play with and then goes back inside, too.

Research shows that a decline in play is closely correlated to a decrease in empathy, increase in anxiety and depression, a decline in creativity, and deficits in socialization skills.

Conversely, the positive benefits of play include the following: developing physical fitness, refining physical (gross motor and fine motor) skills, providing practice for social and emotional development (requiring cooperation, problem-solving, emotional regulation, etc.), requiring strategic thinking, and assisting in developing skills to navigate risk and fear.

“Play is where children learn that they are in control of their own life. It’s really the only place they are in control of their own life,” says Dr. Gray.

When we take that away we don’t give them the chance to learn how to control their own life. Play is where they learn to solve their own problems and learn, therefore, that the world is not so scary after all. Play is where they experience joy and they learn the world is not so depressing after all. Play is where they learn to get along with peers and see from other points of view and practice empathy and get over narcissism. Play is by definition creative and innovative. Of course if you take away play, all these things are going to go down.

“And yet,” continues Gray, “The hue and cry we hear everywhere is for more school and not for more play and we’ve really got to change that.”

Free play time

Gray encourages us that we can change the statistics if we 1) recognize the problem, 2) solve the problem by examining our priorities, 3) get to know our neighbors, and 4) make places available for children to play.  

“Most of all, we need to be brave enough to stand up against the continuous clamor for more schooling. Our children don’t need more school. They need less school. Maybe they need better school but they don’t need more school.”

I would argue that homeschool families have already taken great strides toward raising healthy children by removing them from highly-structured institutions and giving them more time to play freely.

Good job, parents!


Photo Credit: iStock. Following image courtesy of author