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Want well-adjusted kids? Send them out to play

Maybe we aren’t doing enough to encourage free play.

It's summertime and our kids are free – liberated from rigid schedules, confining classrooms and standardized testing.

Lynn Pinoniemi

Except they’re not.

We, their harried and well-intentioned parents – at least, those of us with the means – have scheduled and spread-sheeted their entire summer through Labor Day.

Bent on filling their free time and keeping idle hands busy, we’ve signed up our kids for endless activities – from coding camp to Spanish immersion classes. They’re so bombarded with planned activities that they don’t have time to think. Or, we hope, get in trouble.

A troubling pattern

But then, as their well-ordered days trudge by, we begin to see a troubling pattern. Whenever our kids do have a sliver of unscheduled time – if they’re not mesmerized by a monitor or screen – they don’t know what to do with themselves.

In fact, studies show that children’s play time has fallen off by 25 percent over the past few decades. Talk about lost childhoods.

Maybe we aren’t doing enough to encourage free play. That’s a problem parents in my generation didn’t have.

Today, even school recess time – especially during the school day – is dispensed like a controlled substance.

While Finnish schoolchildren average 75 minutes of recess time and Japanese students take 10- to 15-minute breaks each hour, American kids eke out a meager 27 minutes of recess time, on average.

Recently, in Minneapolis Public Schools, parents, school board members and play proponents petitioned for 30 minutes of “unstructured, safe, supervised recess time” for all Minneapolis kindergarteners through eighth-graders.

Life's dress rehearsal

Watch your kids on the playground soon. You’ll witness their life’s dress rehearsal. You’ll see the next generation’s entrepreneurs, aspiring artists and future athletes – playing for real. They’re negotiating turns on the slide. Assigning dramatic roles. Cooperating to balance on the tire swing. And mastering new motor skills.

Try to remember how great it felt to play when you were a kid. Then clear your calendar, cancel some activities and give in to your kids’ own petitions for more playtime.

And if you need more proof of the power of play, consider this. A raft of studies on the value of pretend play (what the experts call “socio-dramatic play”), show it’s closely tied to the development of language and a variety of social competence skills.

Funny thing, too. Those social skills are the exact qualities that the world needs more of now: empathy, creativity and self-regulation.

So if you want to set your kids up for success as adults – and help them enjoy life fully – tell them to go play. For a better tomorrow, we play today. 

Lynn Pinoniemi works as an executive team member at Landscape Structures, based in Delano.

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Comments (2)

Excellent article!!! Well written!!!

Lynn:

Lately my life has felt just like a pressure cooker (nothing I care to divulge) but I find myself reminiscing a LOT about my childhood and those carefree days of summer vacation. Back then (I am a Baby Boomer, lol) summer vacations lasted from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Now kids are lucky to get out of school by the 1st or 2nd week of June and they go back well before Labor Day. I feel sorry for them.

Yes, I have read the research about how much knowledge kids lose over summer vacation (maybe that's where an introduced "love of reading" would fit in - sure worked in my household) but still . . . oh, the freedom of sleeping in and staying up late, riding bikes and catching fireflies with no worries of homework or projects that are due the next day - there's nothing like it. And kids are only little once.

I have been a kid and I am a mother of two grown men, and I am all for giving kids a break. Both my sons participated in music lessons, school band and sports, yet I still tried to let them have time to just be kids. Being a grown-up with all of the mundane adult responsibilities that inevitably come one's way lasts a VERY LONG, LONG time . . . our kids need to enjoy being young while they can.

Here's to picnics by the lake, and long days of playing - letting one's imagination soar while playing outside in the sunshine, or on the porch when summer showers occur - winter fast approaches - enjoy summer while you can.

Upper middle class American

Upper middle class American parents are getting caught up in the same crazy race for prestige that I saw living in Japan in the 1970s and making extended visits in the 1980s.

During one extended stay, I rented a room in the Japan YWCA, and one of the other residents was a high school girl who was spending her entire six-week summer vacation attending a math and science cram school in Tokyo. She was from a provincial town, and her objective was medical school (Japanese medical schools operate on a European-style system, so prospective doctors are admitted to a university's medical school right out of high school and take what we would call pre-med courses there.).

I asked her if she was going to have any time off at all before the fall semester started. Yes, there would be a three-day gap between her arrival back in her hometown and the start of the second half of her last year of high school, when she would take the entrance exams for medical school and learn whether she was admitted or not only a month before the start of the next school year in April. She planned to spend those three days sleeping, she said.

I didn't say so, but it struck me as insane, especially since the students at the Japanese university I attended seemed to regard college as a four-year vacation devoted to club activities and parties with a bit of token academic work.

I can understand that employed parents in the U.S. need someone to supervise their children. But when I overhear upper middle class parents in coffee shops year round complaining about how they "have to" drive their children from one activity to the next, I think, "Why not spend more time just hanging out with your children or letting them putter around in the backyard?"

(Yeah, I know the answer: "How will letting my seven-year-old putter around in the backyard help him get into Harvard?")

I actually asked one mother who was not only complaining about all the driving but remarking that her son was irritable, had trouble sleeping at night, and was falling behind in his schoolwork, why she didn't cut back on her son's activities and give him more downtime.

"Oh, but all the other kids are in all those activities." she said, looking at me as if I had suggested something incredibly odd. "We have to keep up." Then she turned back to the other women she was having coffee with, and they discussed the possibility of sending the boy to one of those for-profit tutoring outfits.

Sigh!