The Decline In Children’s Play

Albert Einstein once coined, "Play is the highest form of research".

Perhaps Einstein was onto something regarding the significance of play in human development.

U.S. reports showed a 37% decline in participation in outdoor activities for children aged 6 to 12 years from 1997 to 2003 (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov). This suggested that present-day children are engaging in free play less than children of the past.

A steady decline in play

There has been a perplexing modern-day assault on playing as opportunities for outdoor play and the time spent playing have been limited.

Heightened parental concern for the child’s safety

Credits: Michigan State University

As society develops and parents become increasingly educated, parents are becoming increasingly aware of the possible risks linked to play. This has been associated with the culture of “Safety-ism”, where parents actively limit play that could be perceived as risky, to protect the child from potentially sustaining needless injuries.

This was even though that the inherent benefits of risky play have been well-documented in research to facilitate the child’s development. Nevertheless, the disproportionate perception of danger has given reason for parents to reduce their children from taking on risks in free play.

Technological advancements in screen-based entertainment

Credits: CNN

One study found that 59% of children aged 5 to 12 years preferred indoor play to any other location and in In 2008, 30% of children were considered overweight or obese.

With the ever-expanding line of modern screen-based devices such as smartphones and tablets, children are increasingly hooked to these technological marvels. The easily accessible, diverse content that these devices offer such as social media and videos would cause children to adopt a more sedentary lifestyle and stay indoors instead of partaking in free play outdoors.

Furthermore, parents may encourage indoor play as these forms of entertainment are viewed as inherently less risky and they could monitor them more easily indoors.

Growing prevalence of hothousing

The overwhelming demand for limited places in prestigious schools has induced parents to start educating their children from a very young age, defined as hothousing. Based on 1997 research conducted on the “Changes in American Children’s Time”, the results showed a fall of around 15 % in the total weekly time spent playing from 1981 to 1997. In contrast, there was an 8% increase in the time spent at school and a 20% increase in the time spent studying.

In today’s competitive academic environment, parents are determined to give their children a “head start” by enhancing their intellectual functioning above the average level. To achieve this, parents are shortening play time, and increasing structured activities to stimulate the child’s mind.

Motivation to Win in Playing

Children are motivated by the process of gaining points and winning, not the incentives that could come with the win. The emphasis of play is on the process of carrying out the activity, for its own sake, rather than being extrinsically motivated by consequences that could follow the activity’s completion.

Playing to win reduced free playing that occurs when children engage in recreational activities without being directed by adults. There is no particular objective or goal in mind, other than for the enjoyment of play, Free playing is ubiquitous in children of different races, countries, cultures, and even the young of other mammalian species. 

Society Rewarding Certain Jobs Over Others

Credits: LEGO Foundation

In society, most creative roles (artists, performers) are paid less than other careers such as doctors, lawyers, or scientists. As parents who want the best for their children, they would not let their children waste time learning and pursuing these creative play.

Conformation Culture Instead of Promoting Creativity

In most companies, there would be rules governing the actions the people could take, and limiting the room for creativity with punishments for any deviations.

There are also canceled cultures in social media that immediately demonize thoughts that differ from the masses. The space of possibility, bordered by these rules, leads to the generation of conformation rather than playing, exploring, and expressing themselves in a unique way.

Education System Promoting Generalist

Credits: Scholastic

The education system attempts to teach children everything, to allow them the freedom to choose their passions. Children are rated for everything including motor-sensory integration and problem-solving skills.

When rated poorly, children are then forced to improve their weaknesses to match the masses and become generalists.  This ends up frustrating children that do not have talent in their weakness instead of giving them time to play to master skills of their interests. For a certain desired outcome to occur during their play, they would have to develop their means-end reasoning and brainstorm relevant actions they could take to reach their desired outcome.

Teachers Have Approved Teaching Plan

Credits: BabyCenter

Children need to learn to emotionally cope with unexpected and undesirable situations while playing. However, teachers are forced to teach what was planned ahead of time and approved long ago. This could end up teaching things that are already known like historical events of the world rather than learning how to cope with unexpected and undesirable situations.

The ability to regulate their negative emotions is a key milestone in their development and has been proven to be an indicator of their future success in academia, career, and relationships, based on a study conducted by Gülay-Ogelman and Önder in 2019. Furthermore, being able to handle stressful situations well during their play could enhance their tolerance for risk and foster a sense of resilience.

If Einstein’s words hold a lot of water; play is vital for a person’s development and maturation. Researchers who study play in human behavior have identified the 4 aspects of play that make it a functionally useful behavior.

Intangible Social Benefit of Playing

Credits: 30Seconds

Play often involves a group of children playing together, allowing them to experientially and spontaneously learn social norms. However, schools usually set up children to compete against each other in grading and the intangible social benefits are never found in report books. Therefore, children might assume playing or having fun with others is not useful compared to performing well in grades to show their parents.

By reducing hostility and enabling cooperation with others through play, children can develop their conflict resolution skills that are central to building social competence.

Credits: Oribel

Due to the decline in play, there has been a correlated rise in childhood and adolescent psychopathology.

Credits: Hindustan Times

Besides not experiencing the benefits of play, clinical researchers have observed climbing rates of depression and a sense of helplessness amongst children. The absence of an opportunity to learn emotional self-regulation normally through play has resulted in children not knowing how to cope with emotionally stressful situations, correlating to the psychopathological symptoms which also include anxiety and behavioral problems.

As a society, it is time to re-evaluate our apathy towards the modern decline of play. Like ancient philosophers or contemporary scientists, we need to view and treat play as an integral aspect of a child’s development and education. As Plato once said, ‘So, avoid compulsion, and let your children’s lessons take the form of play.


Efforts have been made to get the information as accurate and updated as possible. If you found any incorrect information with credible source, please send it via the contact us form

Liyana Mokhtar Hussein
Liyana enjoys exploring different cultures and cuisines during the travels.


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