Let The Children Play

Our feature this week is written by Esa Helttula of iDevBooks. Esa is one of our Dads With Apps, based in Finland, who has developed a line of math apps for the iPhone. Every week one of our developers writes a feature, and Esa chose something unrelated to technology – but TOTALLY welcome here at Moms With Apps. Let The Children Play! Many people may jump to the conclusion that just because you are a parent with an iPhone, your child runs around with it constantly. Based on what I know about our group, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. We are focused on new conversations, meaningful learning experiences, and useful tools. But above all else, we encourage families to thrive. Thank you Esa for opening up this topic here at Moms With Apps.

American Academy of Pediatrics issued a clinical report in 2006 about the importance of play that stated that play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth. The report notes that despite the benefits several factors have reduced time available for play.

Children have less free playtime than before

Free playtime is in decline in countries all over the World. Japanese photographer Keiki Haginoya decided in 1979 to document children at play on the streets of Tokyo. He intended to make it his life’s work but he had to stop after just 17 years: there were no children playing on the streets any more.

The decline in free playtime has started decades ago. Hillary Burdette and Robert Whitaker reported in a paper published in 2005 in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine that free playtime in US had decreased by 25 % between 1981 and 1997. The University of Sydney Popping the Bubblewrap project reports that the trend is similar in Australia.

The National Institute of Play divides play into different patterns, some of which are body play & movement, social play, imaginative play, creative play, and storytelling. Playing in nature has been shown to be especially beneficial to mental and physical well being. With over 50 % of the World population living in cities, children in every continent have fewer opportunities to experience nature.

Children spend less time outdoors than before

In a 2008 survey the Outdoor Foundation found out that from 2006 to 2007 there was an 11 % drop in outdoor activities among children ages 6 to 17 in US. Over 30% of children did not take part in any outdoor activities during the whole year.

In her study in 2004 Rhonda Clements asked 830 mothers how their children play outdoors compared to how the mothers themselves played outdoors when they were children. Outdoor playtime had decreased dramatically. Especially time spent in made-up imaginative game and games using child-initiated rules had halved.

According to Natural England 40 % of children played in natural places in 1970 but only 10 % do so today. The Ethiopian newspaper The Daily Monitor had an article in 2007 about the need to get children out of the house and noted that many Ethiopians will have reached adulthood far removed from outdoor experiences.

Even in Finland – where 86 % of the land is forest – nursery schools have been facing a new kind of problem. Some children have problems in the forest excursions because they have always walked on a flat surface. One nursery school built an indoor forest trail where children can practice walking before going – for the first time in their lives – to a real forest.

Creativity has been declining

Last summer Newsweek published an article titled “The Creativity Crisis”, which discussed the decline of creativity among children in United States. The article references work by Kyung-Hee Kim, an assistant professor in William & Mary’s School of Education.

Last month Encyclopædia Britannica’s Britannica Blog interviewed Kim and she gave specific figures for the decline in different subscales of the Torrace Test of Creative Thinking.  All subscales have measured declining creativity for the last 20 years with the pace of decline accelerating. The most striking decline was in Elaboration (ability to develop and elaborate upon ideas and detailed and reflective thinking and motivation to be creative). Scores in Elaboration decreased by over 36 % from 1984 to 2008.

Kim is not aware of any research study specifically addressing the topic of declining creativity. One possible explanation, according to Kim, is time spent in front of televisions and computers instead of playing outside or exploring the outside world.

In the summer I was reading the book “Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul” by M.D. Stuart Brown and Christopher Vaughan. The authors tell a story about Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

In the late nineties the engineers and scientists who put men on the moon and built all other major components of manned and unmanned space missions started to retire. The managers found out that top graduates from top universities, like MIT and Stanford, were generally not as good as the older generation when it came to coping with practical difficulties in complex problems. The managers started to look for explanations.

It turned out that all of the old engineers had played with their hands and built things when they were young but only some of the new engineers. Those of the new workers who had played with their hands were better at the kind of problem solving that management sought.

Why is this important?

A Little Miss Mom With App

Nothing like this has ever happened before. The amount of play has been in decline all over the World and children spend less time in nature than ever before. How can the future generations care about nature if they have never experienced it themselves?

Even more important than connecting with nature, being creative, getting along with others, or any other benefits of play is the happiness that play provides. Children are happy when they play and playtime with friends and family provided the most lasting childhood memories for us who are parents today. We should try to provide those memories also for our children.

10 Replies to “Let The Children Play”

  1. As kids, we used to just “go out and play” and always had fun. Our challenge as parents is to evolve with the times and recognize that playtime might include technology, too. That said, technology should only be a subset of a child’s play time and we, as parents, should ensure the technology is hopefully more than just a time waster.

  2. Esa, thanks a lot for this post! As a parent I try to do my best to keep the connection between my son and nature, we live in megapolis so it does need efforts. But I see I’m loosing this game in general… I cannot replace other children even if I’d try. Special communication between children is almost lost.
    And it is time for parents to understand that we’re close to the point where’s no return. I really hope it won’t happen.

  3. Thank you for this elaborated and knowledgable post.
    There is no one to blame for the lack of this creativity or playtime. It’s easier for parents to sit their children in front of an ipad with a game then to sit with them WITH the ipad. The iDevices are not a substitute for a pacifier or playtime. They can and they are an amazing opportunity to share something together, to create and to explore.

    I think that it’s also a mentality related.
    Leaving in Manhattan the only nature my girls saw was when we went camping, or the occasional tree at the park, but now that we we live in Israel, it’s a whole different ball game. They are playing outside a lot. They ride their bikes, going to friends, almost every week we are at the beach. Everything is in walking distance. The weather also allows us to do all these things and the fact that – and I think this is above it all – we have decided to work from home and be there for them, and for US.

    It creates a playtime, family time that I as a child never had. I don’t reminisce on back in the day. Today is so much better. The digital world plays a major part in our life but also the real world. There is so much creativity in their life and it’s all because of what we offer to them.

  4. Thanks Esa and I fully agree, especially when talking about America, kids here seem to play even less outside then I saw back in Europe.

    Also another aspect to this is parents/adults supervision to the their occasional free, unstructured play they get. Kids need to be on their own and try all kinds of mischief they are told not to do – like climbing over the fence, cutting earth worms in half, climbing trees, wading in water on a cold day, eating not ripe fruit, setting a handful of straw on fire etc. It all builds their self-confidence and independence, it learns them responsibility for their own actions and also sharpens their ability to guess what happens next and what the consequences will be.

  5. Thank you for your thoughtful and well-researched post. I’m grateful to live somewhere that has good weather all year round, providing lots of opportunities for outdoor play. We specifically discourage electronic whiz-bang toys with our children and under-schedule them. They are wonderful to watch play together – my 4 year old tells the 2 year old what to do and they’re always interacting. Their favorite game right now it “restaurant” using 100% imaginary props, even though we have “food” toys. Heh.

    I appreciate your whole post and will reference it often as further rationale for why we’re giving our children a Slow Childhood.


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