What happens when children and youth are deprived of play?

We view play as frivolous or fun — a waste of time. Yet, once again while meeting with camp staff in Alaska, I was reminded of the danger of removing critical developmental opportunities for children and youth. Marginalizing play is an unwarranted, unrecognized, and careless experiment.

Play is a child's laboratory. Without that lab, the camp professionals in Alaska are witnessing some interesting developmental gaps in readiness. As we discussed these observations, it called the questions . . .

What happens to young children who are not allowed to participate in unstructured free time — play that is not scripted or merely a secondary experience? What is happening when children do not have a chance for SOCIALIZATION — engaging in parallel play and moving into cooperative play?

I believe, absent positive play, we are seeing children who are six and seven years old manifesting social and emotional behaviors of three and four year olds. They are not prepared to work with others or participate successfully outside of the family unit. These children might know their colors, speak in compound sentences, manage technology, or read, but they are unable to share space with and understand others. They have not learned to manage conflict and solve problems. They have not exercised their creative and innovative muscles. As a result, one has to ask what happens when we limit or remove a child's developmental right to play. What skills have they not had a chance to learn and practice?

Then, what happens to young adults who continue to have their opportunities to “play” (practicing adult skills) limited, managed, or absent? Without MATURATION, experiences that provide safe environments for risk, mistakes, reflection, and exploration, we find young people who are unable to self-regulate, are unable to make independent decisions, or, worse yet, feel crushed by defeat. I would suggest many of these young adults are the same ones failing in their freshman year of college.

You simply can't skip critical developmental steps without consequence.

Are we paying attention? Have we considered the shrinking radius of space for play children have today? A decade ago it was one mile; today it is 500 feet. Have we considered the accumulative time a young person spends in front of a screen compared to having authentic experiences with others? For instance, by the time a young adult is twenty-one, he or she will have logged in nearly 10,000 hours in front of a screen. It takes 4,800 hours to get a bachelor's degree. What does that say about our priorities? Have we considered that limited access to the out of doors combined with sedentary screen time have produced the most obese, unhealthy child population in our country's history?

At times, I grow weary hearing all the jargon about 21st century skills, graduation rates, or workforce readiness when we have undercut a basic, foundational key to healthy development — play. Creative, imaginative play does, in fact, exercise and support many of the 21st century, character, noncognitive, soft skills young people so desperately need if they are to grow up and be successful, contributing adults who are ready to learn, adapt, and excel.

We need a balanced, informed approach as parents, caregivers, politicians, and the public. We must learn to understand play as a form of invention. Invention seeds innovation. Innovation will bring true value to the 21st century.

Photo courtesy of Cheley Colorado Camps, Estes Park, Colorado