Kids today have less free time than previous generations. But they’re still playing, even if it’s not in the same way that their parents did.
By Michelle Hainer
It was the day before Thanksgiving and I was frantically trying to prep for the holiday while my son, daughter, and my son’s friend lounged on the couch. They were being uncharacteristically quiet and when I checked in on them, I immediately saw why: though they were sitting next to one another, each kid was staring at a separate device. “It’s nice out. Go outside and play,” I told them as I shooed them out the door. There was some grumbling and eye-rolling at first, but they ultimately spent the next two hours happily running around our yard playing a game that looked like a ragtag version of football. It was as if they had forgotten how much they enjoy an unstructured afternoon outdoors.
This isn’t surprising, given that since the mid-1960s we’ve gradually been taking away more and more of kids’ free time each decade, says Peter Gray, Ph.D., a research professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, and author of . “The school year and day have gotten longer, we’ve removed recess, and we have developed this belief that our children are in danger if we’re not watching over them all the time,” says Gray, adding that kids are play-deprived if they aren’t getting at least five to six hours of free time each day. “Childhood should be an opportunity to learn to be independent and responsible, solve our own problems, and make decisions. And play is nature’s way of ensuring that children practice the skills that are important for them to develop.”
The school year and day have gotten longer, we’ve removed recess,
and we have developed this belief that our children are in danger if we’re
not watching over them all the time.
— PETER GRAY, PH.D.
Down Time Is Critical
Realistically, most kids, including my own, do not have that much unstructured play time every day. After school hours are often spent doing homework or scheduled activities and down time is practically nonexistent during the school day. Last year, my daughter’s second grade teacher often let her class enjoy extra time outside on nice days—a detail my daughter was excited to share with me when I picked her up, and one that I loved hearing about. So I asked her former teacher, René Blume-Meagher, how she balanced her desire to let her students have the freedom to explore and play with the pressure to combat learning loss. “If the quality of teaching is there, there’s plenty of time for everything,” she tells me. “And when they’re playing, I have conversations with my students that would never happen while I’m teaching or giving an assignment. I can understand them better as learners and tap into their interests and strengths.”
Unfortunately, recess—and its benefits—seems to be a low priority in schools across the country. An informal Facebook poll of my parent friends found that their kids get 15 to 30 minutes of recess on average, if it even exists at all. (Despite the brevity of this break, it was heartening to hear that old school games like kickball and Four Square are still a thing.) “Sixth grade is the last year of recess in our school system, and the kids and teachers know this and cherish the time,” says Heather Wiese, who lives in Dexter, Michigan. “It’s sad that it ends because the kids absolutely need that time.”
According to Catherine Ramstetter, Ph.D., a founding member of the Global Recess Alliance, a group of health and education leaders dedicated to the preservation of recess, and a co-author of , “eliminating recess time to add more instruction time is counterproductive. If we don’t give our brains a chance to reset we aren’t going to be able to process new information,” she says. “It’s like pouring water into an overflowing cup.”
Encourage Play Autonomy
So how can parents help their kids avoid play deprivation—a condition that can lead to depression and anxiety—in a world that increasingly values productivity over unfettered free time? Surprisingly, one of the best things we can do is to let our kids play—outdoors, indoors, or even online—without us in the mix. “If there are adults around, the adults will tell the kids what to do, even if it’s well-meaning,” says Gray. “But when kids play with other kids, they’re negotiating and figuring out how to do something that they both want to do. Or if they’re playing alone, they’re discovering what they like to do or what they’re good at, which could provide a foundation for their future career.” (And spare you from yet another round of Candy Land.)
Yes, it may go against the temptation to be involved in every aspect of our kids’ lives, but unsupervised playtime (in a safe setting, of course) also gives kids privacy, which is especially important as they get older. “Allow your kids to be autonomous with their friends. It doesn’t mean you’re an absent parent, it means you’re giving them the space to become an adult,” says Ramstetter.
Also, don’t sweat it so much if your kids would rather play online than outdoors. “Video games are interesting and challenging and playing them builds the kinds of cognitive abilities that are measured on IQ tests— the ability to think quickly, to make quick and accurate decisions, to hold many pieces of information in your mind at once,” says Gray. “And they’re social and allow kids to interact with their friends.” They can also be an effective equalizer if you have kids who are different ages. “My kids just got Madden ’23 and I appreciate that it brings all three of them together,” says Jeana Kraft, a mom in Wausau, Wisconsin. I see this with my kids, who are 11 and 8, as well. They frequently play Fortnite together, often with kids in both of their friend groups.
As for those shortened recess periods, Ramstetter recommends asking your kids if they have recess (most parents just assume that they do), what they play, or if recess ever gets taken away as a punishment. “There’s a lot of parent-led advocacy around the country surrounding recess. Parents are powerful,” she says. (When my daughter had her recess taken away for talking during art class, I complained about this. Now, that is no longer a practice in our school.)
And while I’ll always choose fresh air over Fortnite for my kids, I’m going to take Gray’s advice and let them play what—and how—they want. “Children take charge of their lives by playing away from adults,” says Gray. Allowing them to do so is one of the best gifts I can give them.