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In praise of unstructured play time for tweens

By Anne Wallace Allen
Associated Press
When we chose our house after moving to Boise in 2005, we definitely didn’t go on curb appeal. Built in 1893, the house was clad in fleshtone cedar shingles, and the bathroom was so small that even the dog could hardly turn around in it.
Yet the house had one feature we loved: It was set in a neighborhood full of scooters, bicycles, swingsets, and other signs that children lived all around.
We were looking for a place where the kids could roam freely, as so many parenting books, blogs, and experts assure us kids don’t get to do nowadays. And in our block, we found it.
The kids, now 11 and 9, swing on a tree swing three doors down. They disappear for hours into another neighbor’s house, emerging with strange crafts they’ve created from scraps of wood in the basement.
This week, my daughter and four neighborhood friends spent days in our living room sewing stuffed animals out of mismatched socks, filling them with rice and beans, and selling them to raise money for the Make-A-Wish foundation.
It seems that whenever I talk to experts on childhood ó be they psychologists, school principals or other parents ó they bemoan the way that childhood has been taken up by structured activities. They talk about our children’s over-scheduled, high-pressure lives.
Yet I know ó or see ó many people making a conscious effort to resist that trend. And despite the pressure we feel to help our kids succeed at sports, at music, and at school, many people manage to make room for play in their kids’ lives.
“We have a swing next door, we have scooters, we have bikes, we have skateboards,” said Shaun Hammersmark, a Boise landscape designer who works at home and has made a conscious effort to create an environment where her kids, ages 5 and 11, and others can play.
The experts tell us that letting kids play, instead of organizing things for them to do, helps them socially, physically and even academically. Play supposedly promotes creativity and enhances problem-solving skills.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says unstructured playtime helps children learn to share, to conquer their fears, to adjust to new situations, and to stick up for themselves. In a 2007 report, the Academy said free playtime and recess are slipping away as schools focus on meeting new academic achievement demands brought about by laws like No Child Left Behind.
Hammersmark said the freestyle play in her yard helps kids from ages one year to 12 learn to get along with others.
“They learn to work with each other, and what better education can you give your kids?” she said. The academics who study children and childhood tell us kids need to figure out playtime on their own. They don’t need to be directed.
“They say, ‘I’m bored, I’m bored,’ but guess what, five minutes later you peek in and they’re playing away,” said Brandy Vanderlee, a mother of three in Macedon, N.Y.
There are scolds in the blogosphere who tell us that parents who let their children take risks by being on their own are neglectful. Plenty on the other side say parents overschedule their kids and hinder their development.
I don’t know which side is right. But the kids I know seem happier when we just leave them alone to play.
“In most cultures and through most of history, people did know that kids needed time to play, but they didn’t feel that adults should play with kids,” said Stephanie Coontz, who teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.
Until recent decades, “there wasn’t this idea that parents should be intervening constantly to make things a teachable moment and expand their minds,” said Coontz. “Their minds expand a lot better when they pursue things they’re interested in for themselves.”
And when they’re playing on their own, their parents get a lot more stuff done. Sure, the sewing circle of kids in my living room ended up accidentally using someone’s mother’s $12 socks that weren’t actually mismatched in the course of their stuffed animal creation. A small price to pay for the full day of uninterrupted working time that I enjoyed in my office about 8 feet away.
Then again, they weren’t my socks.

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