Is the lack of free play contributing to our youth mental health crisis? – Puncher O’Toole

My 6 year old son was sad last night. He was reading one of his school books Biff and Chip and in the story the characters were calling each other to play. ‘Why is no one calling my house to play?’ He asked? It was a perfectly reasonable question, but very difficult to explain in terms that a 6 year old could answer.

He’s not Billy no mates, he has friends. But these days everything has to be pre-arranged: “playdates” is the new buzzword. I have to drive him to the park or to his friends. The casual game many of us had as kids is now dead. Free play has been replaced by organized paid activities. Modern parents know the joy of having to drive junior to gymnastics, swimming, soccer, and more.

Our streets no longer resound with the sound of children playing. They are now eerily quiet except for the noise of cars. In my area, there are hundreds of children but you hardly ever see them. They are all locked in their rooms, presumably online.

I define free play as unstructured play outside of adult control. Children can run around, invent their own games and rules. If Paul hits Marty, they fix it themselves. Basically as parentless as possible.

Free play is essential to children’s development. It helps them to communicate and speak, they learn to cooperate with each other, they learn to regulate their emotions, they learn to improve their motor skills and their fine movements, they develop their autonomy etc.

When I was a kid, I used to play in the street with all the other kids in the neighborhood. You would call someone’s house, ‘Is Kenny there?’. I grew up in downtown Belfast during the Troubles, and I joke that when I was a kid I had real soldiers to play with. Now parents are too scared to let their kids out. The main issues seem to be:

Cars: Virtually every home has a car or two now, taking away play space from children and also encouraging fear of them being run over.

Stranger Danger: the world has never been safer, but thanks to decades of media stories about pedophiles on every corner, parents are terrified of letting their children out of their sight.

Instead, parents and children made a Faustian pact with each other and play was replaced by screens. Children spend all day in front of a screen watching Youtube, playing Fortnite, etc. Parents are reassured that the junior is safe in his room away from the big scary world. But at what cost ?

Friends who teach at university now tell me that about a quarter of their students have mental problems. Rates of anxiety and depression are skyrocketing. Every other day there’s a post on Northern Ireland Reddit from people who are lonely and can’t make friends or find partners.

The theory goes like this. For modern children, every minute of their day is structured. School, organized activities, play dates, screen time, etc. – they call it helicopter parenting and curling parenting: we smooth the path of life for them lest they encounter adversity. Everything is controlled by adults or in the presence of adults. Most are driven to and from school. We tell them what to regurgitate in the exams, we guide them throughout the course. Modern children have very little autonomy, everything is controlled for them. So when they enter college and are expected to arrange their own housing, make their own food, make new friends, do their own research, etc., a high proportion of them crack up.

We taught our children about impotence. Now may I point out that it’s not all children. Modern young people are now very sane. You could say they are too sensible and need to relax a bit more. They drink less, have less sex, etc. than previous generations. Cynics might argue that these behaviors are a side effect of mental health issues.

I have spent a lot of time in playgrounds over the past 6 years and they are sociologically fascinating. A playground near my house is in a working class area and it is almost always empty despite having 2 elementary schools within a quarter mile of it. On the other hand, the playgrounds of the bourgeois neighborhoods are full to bursting. I don’t have an answer to why this is so and would appreciate any suggestions. The best I can find is that middle-class parents could put more emphasis on play.

Playgrounds are also places where inequalities are seen up close. In middle-class neighborhoods, children are taller, thinner, have better teeth, and are in better shape. In working-class playgrounds, children tend to look less healthy. You can easily predict who will get type 2 diabetes by taking a quick look at a playground.

The element of inequality is important. The middle classes can afford to pay for activities, summer camps, etc. Working-class children do not have the same opportunities.

Research in Scotland shows that only around a third of Scottish primary school children regularly played outside; two-thirds were not used to it at all. Additionally, the same research team found that teenagers spent seven to eight hours a day using phones, computers, and televisions, almost all of their free time. We are culturally very similar to Scotland, so I imagine those numbers are similar for Northern Ireland.

So how to deal with the problem?

I think there are several things we can do. On a personal level, parents need to understand how crucial free play is. I know the modern world is stressful and it’s really easy to let your children spend a lot of time in front of a screen, but we have to realize that it comes at a cost.

There are positives to the Internet. Things like Minecraft can be very creative, but I think we can agree that too much screen time for all of us, including adults, is unhealthy.

On a societal level, I think we need to have more free play in schools. My son finishes school at 2:15 p.m. Why couldn’t they have free play after school for 45 minutes? It would require additional funds, but I think it would be money well spent.

I also think we should make more use of the schools on weekends and public holidays, as they have the necessary facilities. I do not propose extra work for teachers. Free play could be supervised by class assistants, student teachers or youth workers.

Rather than complain about the problem last year, I started a Facebook group called Free-Range Kids Belfast. The idea was to organize free informal gaming meetings. To be honest, I haven’t paid much attention to it, so it’s not very active yet, but if you’re a parent and you agree with my point of view, join the group for me encourage it to start this year.

Mental health is a complex area. There are other factors like the rise of smartphones and social media. But I think there’s not enough of a focus on gambling. All the attention and the money goes into mental health treatment, but very little into prevention. Improving access to play may be the cheapest and most direct way to improve the mental health of children and future adults.

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