© K Martinko
The decline of free play time in favor of structured learning has resulted in never-seen-before sensory issues and emotional problems in young children.
Parents worry far too much about their preschoolers’ academic performance. They sign kids up for reading enrichment activities, music lessons, dance classes, organized play dates, museum camp, and more, all in hopes of their children getting an upper hand when real school starts.
The problem, however, is that when little kids under the age of 7 spend so much time doing organized activities, it takes time away from the free play that is so desperately needed for developing other areas of their brain and wellbeing.
Angela Hanscom is a writer and founder of TimberNook, a nature-based camp with unstructured programming in New England. She wrote an article for the Washington Post called “The decline of play in preschoolers – and the rise in sensory issues.” Hanscom explains why young children so desperately need free play:
“It is before the age of 7 years — ages traditionally known as ‘pre-academic’ — when children desperately need to have a multitude of whole-body sensory experiences on a daily basis in order to develop strong bodies and minds. This is best done outside where the senses are fully ignited and young bodies are challenged by the uneven and unpredictable, ever-changing terrain.”
When children do not have access to free play, this creates serious problems that, one could argue, make their academic performance pointless if they lack the very important social and emotional skills that should go along with it.
“If children are not given enough natural movement and play experiences, they start their academic careers with a disadvantage. They are more likely to be clumsy, have difficulty paying attention, trouble controlling their emotions, utilize poor problem-solving methods, and demonstrate difficulties with social interactions. We are consistently seeing sensory, motor, and cognitive issues pop up more and more in later childhood, partly because of inadequate opportunities to move and play at an early age.”
Hanscom quotes one preschooler teacher who describes kids these days as being “different.” They cry more often, are easily frustrated, fall out of their seats multiple times a day, walk into doors and walls. She says, “It is so strange. You never saw these issues in the past.”
Much of this can be blamed on a major shift in parenting in past decades. Parents don’t want to hear that their kid played in the mud all day at school; they’d rather know how Jolly Phonics went. The rise in helicopter parenting has resulted in parents pressuring teachers to follow up with kids’ homework and to improve their grades. Schools have responded to this parental obsession with academics by limiting free play in the curriculum and focusing on what seems to matter most to parents.
It’s so unfortunate that kids get the short end of the stick in this whole free play vs. structured learning debate. If adults simply let them do what they’re naturally inclined to do – mess around in the yard, digging, climbing, chasing, jumping – then there would be less need for social skills groups, special breathing techniques, coping strategies, and exercises to ‘teach’ young kids how to focus and sit still, not to mention the countless psychotropic medications given to American kids. We are attempting to teach something that should come naturally, if we only allowed it to.