“Free play and exploration are, historically, the means by which children learn to solve their own problems, control their own lives, develop their own interests, and become competent in pursuit of their own interests.”
—Peter Gray, Research Professor, Department of Psychology, Boston College
I am still shaking after speaking with one of my rock star heroes, Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College’s psychology department and author of the groundbreaking book Free to Learn. Sadly, my shaking is not in the rock star sense of weak-in-the-knees, passionate teenage crush but more a reaction to the jaw-dropping realization of how very far astray I and so many parents have gone in our parenting styles.
What I came to understand from our conversation is that in the course of just one generation, we have been totally stifling our children by depriving them the freedom and trust they need to discover themselves. As a result, children are unable, to quote Professor Gray, “to practice courage and develop the full level of emotional resilience needed for a happy, healthy fulfilling life.”
There is actually a name for the parental style I have adopted: directive- protective parenting. In a nutshell, this basically means that I am so worried about my children’s futures and their bodily safety that I feel compelled to direct their every action and protect them from perceived harm and failure. Such a controlled level of parenting, however, denies them the space, time, and freedom to chart their own course and suffer setbacks along the way. And this parenting style is profoundly impacting mental health. Today’s children are experiencing unprecedented levels of pressure, anxiety, and depression — all stemming from a lack of self-confidence, resilience, independence, and sense of self. And, of course, it’s these qualities that are critical in helping them discover their passions, purpose, and sense of personal fulfillment.
At Melissa & Doug, we believe that unstructured, open-ended play is the launch pad to unleashing imagination and discovering oneself, and we’ve created thousands of toys to do just that. But how ironic that as a parent I struggle to give my children the trust, time, and space to use those tools however they see fit?
Don’t get me wrong: Although Free to Learn was a truly profound book that forced me to see where our society has moved in a much clearer way, for years I have felt the strain of knowing that much of the world and I are clearly off course and jeopardizing our children’s happiness. But I haven’t had the strength or confidence to get off the treadmill of performance, pedigree, and structure. So in order to try to better understand the problem and be part of a solution, Melissa & Doug recently partnered with Gallup to conduct a nationwide study of parents’ perspectives on their children’s time spent outside of school: how it is spent, prioritized, and valued.
Prior to our study with Gallup, there was a surprising lack of research on parents’ perspectives on play. It is parents, for the most part, who decide how their children spend time outside of school and so it is parents we need to convince how crucial child-led play is to their children’s development and well-being.
Here are three of the most revealing findings from our study with Gallup, as well as some of the lingering questions that I’ll be discussing with a panel of child development experts and researchers. I will be sure to report back on what comes out of those discussions, including any actionable advice we can share.
The Power of Play Is Not Fully Appreciated
“The very character traits play helps children develop and nurture—like grit, curiosity, and social intelligence—are at least as important [as IQ] in a child’s success and quite possibly more important.” —Paul Tough, “How Children Succeed”
Our study revealed that parents don’t fully recognize the many benefits of child-led play. Researchers and experts have found that this type of unstructured play is critical in helping children with healthy brain development, self-regulation of emotions, and improved literacy. Yet parents in our study associated child-led, indoor play mostly with creativity and problem-solving, which they did not rank as important qualities for their kids to develop. Ironically, the three qualities they most highly value — self-confidence, social skills, and academic skills — they linked to structured activities and organized sports, when all of them have been closely linked to play.
To excel in the 21st century information economy, our children are going to need to be innovative, to be able to think outside the box. A 2010 survey of 1,500 CEOs cited “creativity” — more than rigor, integrity, or vision — as the key to success in an increasingly complex world. Tony Wagner, author of Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, notes, “It is [the] combination of play, passion and purpose that best develops the discipline and perseverance required to be a successful innovator.”
How do we get parents, educators, and society to value child-led play, to understand its mental and physical benefits and its connection to innovation and success, and to make time for it throughout childhood? What actions can we all take? How do we lead the charge on making this change?
Screen-Time Is Crowding Out Indoor, Imaginative Play
While we were heartened that our study showed parents and kids both seem to value outdoor play and devote time to it, we were concerned to see that children’s second and third most preferred activities (after outdoor play) involve screen-based play — watching media and playing on electronic devices.
In a report last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics released its advisory on screen-time limits for children and noted, “It is important to emphasize to parents that the higher-order thinking skills and executive functions essential for school success, such as task persistence, impulse control, emotion regulation, and creative, flexible thinking, are best taught through unstructured and social (not digital) play, as well as responsive parent–child interactions.”
Our study indicated that while parents are concerned about their children’s level of screen time, their child’s preferences for it are often prevailing, with children spending up to 19 hours a week on screens. Two-thirds of parents worry — either a little or a lot — that their child spends too much time on electronic devices. And as children’s screen time levels go up, so too do parents’ concerns about children’s stress levels, academic performance, and social skills. What’s more, their concerns are valid. In China, doctors are starting to view screen addiction as a clinical disorder with serious consequences for children’s mental health and well-being.
This says to me that we must provide kids other options to experience the world in a hands-on, active, exploratory way.
How do we spread the word that technology is addictive, especially to young children, and how do we address these potential issues right from the start? How do we as parents encourage appealing alternatives to screens so our kids get a balance of play?
Boredom Is Not Embraced
One of the findings that came out of our study confirmed something I’ve long observed: Parents are not comfortable letting their kids be bored. I’ve written about this topic in the past, and it was not surprising to see the data points support my theory.
What we found is that parents feel compelled to structure and fill their children’s time – with organized sports and other activities. (On a side note, it was very interesting to me that parents and children are not on the same page at all about their preference for organized sports. Parents are twice as likely as their children to favor organized sports as a time-filler.)
In addition, only 21% of parents strongly agree that it’s good for kids to be bored now and then. And when asked about their strategy when their kids are bored, only a third say their approach would be to let the child figure things out for themselves.
Studies have shown a connection between boredom and creativity. I think we as parents need to train ourselves to not step in immediately when our children are bored — to let them feel that emptiness, work through it, and come up with their own creative ways out of it. It’s through this process that they will develop skills that will serve them for a lifetime.
How do we get parents — and children — to embrace boredom and to understand that they have the power to turn it into something magical?
The Journey Continues
We are on a mission to Take Back Childhood and our study is just the beginning. We will continue to raise awareness with parents and educators and provide ideas for incorporating child-led play and downtime into your child’s life. And my personal goal is to become much more of a “trustful parent,” one who trusts their child to, in the words of Peter Gray, “play and explore on their own, make their own decisions, and take risks and learn from their own mistakes.”
Read the full Gallup study HERE.