Over the past 60 years, our society has moved evermore toward a school-centric view of child development, which I’m calling here the schoolish view. The schoolish view is this: Children need regular adult guidance. Children benefit more when they are supervised and directed by adults than when they play on their own. Children, including adolescents, have immature brains and are ill equipped to make good decisions for themselves. Left to their own devices they will take risks and ignore dangers, so it is best to monitor them continuously. Learning derives mainly from school lessons and other adult-directed activities, not from children’s self-directed activities. Parents should be assistant teachers. They should monitor their children’s homework, reward their children for doing well in school, seek “teachable moments,” buy toys that are specifically designed to teach the kinds of skills and information emphasized in school, and encourage their children to join school-like, adult-directed sports, clubs, and classes outside of school.
There are many reasons for the rise of this schoolish view, but we educators are at least partly to blame. We have allowed school to become more central to children’s lives (and to their parents’ lives) than it should be. We have forgotten that the most important lessons children must learn in order to grow into socially and psychologically competent adults are not taught in school, but are learned through self-directed activities, especially play. Here I will summarize some of the evidence for the damage that the schoolish view has done and offer some hints as to how we might help restore children’s freedom to play.
Young parents and teachers may not even realize the degree to which our culture has shifted in its view of childhood. When I was a child, in the 1950s, school had not yet burst out of its walls to affect the child’s whole world. The school day was six hours long, as it generally is today, but in the elementary schools I attended we had a half-hour recess in the morning, a full hour of free time at lunch, and another half-hour recess in the afternoon. At lunch we were free to go anywhere we wanted, including off campus.
Homework for elementary school students was almost unheard of. Out of school, most of us had some chores, and some had a part-time job (such as delivering newspapers, mowing lawns, or babysitting), but even that gave us a sense of personal accomplishment, self-direction, and maturity that is rarely found in schoolwork. The rest of our time, including all summer long, was largely our own, to do with what we wanted. We were free to go where we wanted, as long as we could get there on our own.
If we played sports, they were almost always pickup games, where we had to negotiate the rules and solve all problems ourselves, without adult coaches or umpires to tell us what to do. Our hobbies were of our own choosing and under our own control. In the summer we read what we wanted, not assignments from a school-dictated reading list. There seemed to be a general understanding, not necessarily stated, that children need lots of time to play and explore on their own for healthy development.
These are not just nostalgic musings. Social scientists have documented the continuous and dramatic decline of freedom of movement and play for children over these decades. The historian Howard Chudacoff refers to the first half of the 20th century as “the golden age” of free play for children in the United States. But since about 1955, adults have continuously chipped away at children’s freedom, as the schoolish view has gained ever-greater momentum.
As children’s freedom has declined, we have seen a gradual, but ultimately huge, increase in all sorts of mental disorders in children and young adults. These have been documented by analyzing the results of clinical assessment questionnaires given in unchanged form to normative samples of young people over the decades. (The findings I describe here are from the U.S., where the most extensive studies have been done, but there is reason to believe that the same applies generally to Canada, the UK, and other Western countries.) By these measures, the rates of clinically serious depression and anxiety in young people increased five- to eight-fold between the mid 1950s and late 1990s. During that same period, the suicide rate quadrupled in children under 15 and more than doubled in young people between 15 and 24 (and did not increase in older adults). More recently, the rates of childhood depression and suicide, and some indices of anxiety, have leveled off or even declined somewhat, but these recent changes appear to be attributable to a huge increase in the prescription of psychoactive drugs to young people and to suicide-prevention programs, not to a cultural shift that has made children’s lives less depressing or anxiety-inducing.
Analyses of other clinical questionnaires given over the years to normative samples of children and adolescents have produced similarly sad results. Such research reveals that young peoples’ sense of being in control of their own lives has been declining continuously since the 1950s, that narcissism has been increasing and empathy decreasing ever since tests for these were developed in the late 1970s, and that creative thinking has been declining in K-12 schoolchildren, at least since the mid 1980s.
What has caused this deterioration in children’s mental and social well-being? The changes do not correlate with economic cycles, or wars, or with changes in the divorce rate, but do correlate very well with the decline in children’s freedom. In fact, these are exactly the changes that we would predict would occur as a result of a decline in children’s opportunities to play freely.
In play, children discover and pursue their passions, with no bells interrupting them, and develop skills related to those passions, which can lead eventually to rewarding and enjoyable careers. In play, away from adults, children learn to solve their own problems and take control of their own lives. In social play, children learn how to make friends and see from one another’s perspectives. Play, by definition, is an activity that you are always free to quit; so, to keep any game going, each player must be concerned with the other players’ happiness, so they don’t quit. To do that, each player must see from the other players’ points of view, which is the essence of empathy and the opposite of narcissism.
Play builds emotional resilience that protects children from clinically significant depression and anxiety. In play children develop confidence that they can solve problems as they arise, so the world become less frightening and more manageable. When children play at “dangerous” things, such as climbing high in trees, they are testing and building on their own capacity to experience and overcome fear – a capacity that allows them to experience fear without panic, which may one day, in a real emergency, save their lives. Young mammals of many species also play at moderately dangerous activities, apparently for the same reason. Children also inevitably, on occasion, get angry at one another in their play, but if they are to continue playing they must learn to control that anger. And so, in play, children learn to regulate their emotions. They learn to take life’s stressors with equanimity.
When adults are always around to solve children’s problems, resolve their disputes, and stop them from playing in ways that look rough or dangerous, children can’t learn these things. Adults, of course, are crucial to children’s well-being. They are models, nurturers, sources of security, and teachers. But when adults take over children’s lives as completely as they do now, the results are harmful. Play, away from adults, is how children learn to become adults, because that is where they must be responsible for themselves and for one another. We need to permit children lots of opportunity for such play if we want them to grow up socially competent, emotionally resilient, and happy.
We educators can help children by doing the opposite of what so many of us are doing now. We can advocate for less time sitting in classrooms, less homework, less pressure to pass tests or take honours courses or get high grades, and more opportunity for free play and exploration with no adults hovering. We can open up school playgrounds and gymnasiums and art rooms for free play after school hours, perhaps with a teenaged or adult supervisor present just for emergencies, not to intervene or interfere. We can work to reduce, rather than increase, parents’ concerns about their children’s school performance. We can help parents and others in the community realize that education is far more than schooling. It is all of learning, and most of what children must learn for a happy and healthy life can occur only outside of the classroom, when children are truly free. We can help our communities realize that safe places for children to play with one another are at least as important as good schools, and we can work in our communities to create those safe places.
First published in Education Canada, March 2014
EN BREF: Depuis plus d’un demi-siècle, notre société évolue de plus en plus vers ce que l’auteur appelle une approche « scolarisante » de l’éducation des enfants, qui sont pratiquement toujours surveillés et dirigés par des adultes et où le jeu libre tient très peu de place. Cette diminution de la liberté pendant l’enfance s’est accompagnée de hausses marquées de la dépression, de l’anxiété, du sentiment d’impuissance et du suicide, de même que d’une baisse de l’empathie chez les jeunes. L’auteur soutient que ces déclins du bien-être mental et social correspondent exactement à ce qu’on devrait s’attendre par suite d’un déficit de jeu et d’autres possibilités d’autodétermination. Il attribue aux éducateurs, du moins en partie, la responsabilité de ces changements sociétaux et nous incite maintenant à faire ce que nous pouvons pour les renverser.
 Peter Gray, “The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescents,” American Journal of Play 3, No. 4 (2011): 443-463.
 Howard P. Chudacoff, Children at Play: An American history (New York: New York University Press, 2007).
 Gray, “The Decline of Play,” 443-463.
 Jean M. Twenge, “The Age of Anxiety? The birth cohort change in anxiety and neuroticism, 1952-1993,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 79, No. 6 (2000): 1007–21; Jean M. Twenge, Brittany Gentile, C. Nathan DeWall, Debbie Ma, Katharine Lacefield, and David R. Schurtz, “Birth Cohort Increases in Psychopathology Among Young Americans, 1938–2007: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of the MMPI,” Clinical Psychology Review 30, No. 2 (2010): 145–54.
 For suicide rates by age group from 1950 to 2005, see: www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0779940.html#axzz0zVy5PKaL
 Jean M. Twenge, “Generational Differences in Mental Health: Are children and adolescents suffering more, or less?” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 81, No. 4 (2011): 469-472.
 Jean M. Twenge, Liqing Zhang, and Charles Im, “It’s Beyond My Control: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of increasing externality in locus of control, 1960–2002,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 8, No. 3 (2004): 308–19.
 Sarah H. Konrath, Edward H. O’Brien, and Courtney Hsing, “Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students over Time,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 15, No. 2 (2011): 180-198; Jean M. Twenge, “The Evidence for Generation Me and Against Generation We,” Emerging Adulthood 1 (2013): 11-16.
 Kyung Hee Kim, “The Creativity Crisis: The decrease in creative thinking scores on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking,” Creativity Research Journal 23, No. 4 (2011): 285-295.
 Peter Gray, Free to Learn: Why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life (New York: Basic Books, 2011).
 Marek Spinka, Ruth C. Newberry, and Marc Bekoff, “Mammalian Play: Training for the unexpected,” Quarterly Review of Biology 76, No. 2 (2001): 141–68.