As our children go back to school, we note with concern how over-scheduled their lives often are. Extracurricular activities, tutoring, homework, sports, music lessons, and more are seen by parents and educators alike as keys to future success. At the same time, we may lament the loss of the spontaneous, unstructured play of yesteryear’s childhoods. Sleep deprivation further challenges health, growth, and brain development.

I am personally familiar with all this as my granddaughter, Serenity, now going into fifth-grade has experienced her share of long days: dance, gymnastics, Girl Scouts, ukulele and tennis lessons, and of course lots of homework. It was an eye-opener to me when at the tender age of 8 she started talking about how she was “too busy.” Too busy isn’t a term I’d expect a grade-schooler to use, yet her situation is far from unique.

A lot of this is cultural, as well as generational. When I was a child, parental oversight of play time wasn’t really expected much of the time. With some families in my grade school having up to a dozen children, it wasn’t even possible. We would run up and down the neighbors’ backyards, play baseball, basketball, croquet, throw chinaberries and dirt clods, shoot BB guns and slingshots, climb trees, build tree houses, and disappearing from home for hours at a time. Usually only hunger, thirst, or fatigue brought us to the back door of the home kitchen and parental connection.

Now, with smaller and often single child families, helicopter parents hover over their children’s every activity. Real fears of abduction, abuse, and street, school, or neighborhood violence have added to this increased vigilance.

This close oversight might not be so good, as described in a recent New York Times article from an upcoming book, “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.” The authors, psychologist Jonathan Haidt and educational activist Greg Lukianoff, cite research that overprotecting, over-supervising, and over-scheduling our children stunts their mental and social growth.

According to them, young mammals are born with immature, undeveloped nervous systems. Free play, lots of it, is required to develop their brains, nervous systems, and social skills. The American Academy of Pediatrics has urged parents to increase the amount of time spent in free play as detailed in Dr. Sally Robinson’s excellent recent two-part series on play in this newspaper.

Free play is not structured activities designed and supervised by adults. It is play by and among children, pure and simple. It is democracy at its most primitive form as the children in a pick-up game negotiate, agree to the rules, play rough and tumble, cheerfully accepting that a few scrapes and bruises are expected.

The immune system flourishes in children exposed to dirt, germs, worms, pets, and other environmental challengers. Similarly, children seem to need more risks, social interactions, successes and failures, setbacks, conflicts, competition, and the alliances play provides to develop their nervous system and social brain to full capacity.

Without such experiences we risk creating a generation intolerant of differences of opinion, inability to associate, communicate, and negotiate. We need to teach our children ways to bridge the gaps between ideals and the achievable.

Let them play!

Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.

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