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Play - The Importance of Unstructured Outdoor Time

active-play-rainy-dayA recent article from The Globe and Mail has people talking again about the dwindling amount of time kids spend playing outside in an unstructured environment. Margaret Wente shares the following in her thought-provoking article:

"The children of the upper middle class are busy, busy, busy, with schedules that would rival that of any CEO. It never stops. In high school, they start building their résumés for university... By 18, they are seasoned veterans of the programmed life. No wonder so many of them are helpless. All their lives, somebody else has told them what to do and where to be. Once they’re on their own, they fall apart. Universities report record levels of stress among their students... Could it be that we are doing them more harm than good?

David Whitebread thinks so. He’s a psychologist at Cambridge University who specializes in the early years. He and 120 other experts have launched a campaign to get the British government to roll back early education, which begins at 5. Starting children too early on formal learning, he maintains, can cause 'profound damage,' including stress and mental-health problems. Until age 7, what children really need is … play.

'Play is a powerful way to impart social skills,' writes Peter Gray, an evolutionary psychologist who believes children’s lives have become ruinously regimented. Play also teaches children how to manage intense negative emotions, such as fear and anger, and to test themselves by taking manageable risks. Unstructured and unsupervised (oh, horrors!) play is crucial for their development.

'In play, children make their own decisions and solve their own problems,' Prof. Gray writes. 'In adult-directed settings, children are weak and vulnerable. In play, they are strong and powerful. The play world is the child’s practice world for being an adult.' "

The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees with Ms. Wente, saying that unstructured play "is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth." Outdoor play is more than just fun for kids. It's an opportunity for children to exercise their brains and bodies while learning to navigate social situations and problem solve on their own.

So what can parents do to make sure kids are getting the crucial play time they need? First, take stock of your family's schedule. Are your children stressed, anxious, or depressed? Do your children have extra-curricular activities everyday of the week? If you answered "yes" to either of these questions, it may be time to re-prioritize your family's schedule. Consider setting limits on extra-curricular activities, and lead by example to let children know that unstructured downtime is healthy and important. What will you do to put unstructured play time back in your child's day? Share with us below!

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