To play or not to play?

There’s a 10 x 10 x 6 fort in my house. The walls are made of king size sheets and captain style kitchen table chairs. The inside boasts a lamp, a travel TV, several Harry Potter movies, and numerous toys jammed into each corner. 

My son loves this fort. He would do everything in his fort if I let him, including eating all meals. Just last night, I reluctantly crawled into his sacred fort, at his invitation, to play UNO…and the thought struck me. While I remember building forts all over my parent’s Iowa farmhouse, I really don’t remember my mother ever actually coming “into” the fort. I remember her popping her head in, and saying how wonderful it looked. Then she would bustle back to the kitchen. I certainly know that my father didn’t even poke a head through the fort door. If he had, my siblings and I would have been confused. What’s dad doing in here? It was a kid’s fort: parents were off limits. 

We kids played together. The adults were busy doing what adults do. 

So as I sat hunched in the fort, getting beat at cards once again by an eight-year-old, I began thinking about it. Parents seem to play more with their kids these days than the “old days.” That’s great…right? Is there more value with kids playing with other kids and having a more self-directed state of play, rather than mainly playing with Mom and Dad? When did the change happen? Somewhere in between my childhood in the ’70s and today? And really, what’s causing it?

Everyone knows the stats and importance of kids playing. Kids and play go together like peanut butter and jelly. According to Dr. Michele Borba, in her Eleven (not so) Surprising Benefits of Play blog, letting kids engage in self-directed play has immense value for their social, emotional, cognitive, and physical growth. She has a section called “Reality Check: could your kids be ‘play deprived’?” She even mentions some interesting factoids, including: 

• Since the late 1970s, there’s been a 25 percent drop in our children’s free play and a 50 percent drop in unstructured activities (that’s UNstructured activities) 

• Since the late 1970s kids’ time in organized, adult-supervised sports have doubled and the number of minutes devoted each week to passive leisure, not including watching television, has increased from 30 minutes to more than three hours.

Perhaps we’re putting our fingers on a few points. In the 1970s, free play was rampant. Organized activities, such as sports, didn’t really kick in until junior high or high school. There were days where I headed out the front door to play, and I wasn’t seen until the sun began to set (or until I got hungry). But times have changed, and the days of sending your kids out the door unsupervised for most of the day isn’t an accepted option. Gwen Dewar, PH.D., in her article “The pressure to play with your kids,” hits on this point.

“Was it like this when I was a kid? No it wasn’t,” she says, “Kids played, but they didn’t play with adults. They played with other kids. And — for better or worse — that’s the way it is in most cultures around the world.” She said the families living in modern Western societies such as the United States find themselves physically isolated. The old “it takes a village” adage comes to mind. In our culture, village playgroups are not an option for many. “So one reason for the pressure [to play] is that our kids lack opportunities to play with each other,” says Dewar. And we can’t ignore the fact that parents are away from the home and working longer hours. Playing with the kids turns into their quality time together. 

Some research and experts seem to dance on that fine line. Parents today shouldn’t get too consumed with spending as much time as possible playing with their kids. Of course, parents should spend time with their kids, but perhaps not be the entertainment director. We feel guilt when we’re not available to go play Jedi Knights while we’re trying to cook supper. Sometimes we’re just not always available or can give undivided attention to our kids. Letting the kids play alone or with their siblings can encourage resourcefulness, imagination, and some independent thinking. 


 Now this doesn’t mean that parents should cut down on time spent with their kids. But do the things together you really enjoy. I love reading and cuddling with my son, singing songs or dancing to certain music. He knows he can come get me anytime he needs to. But I have to admit, when I hear him outside whooping happily with himself or with his friends, it makes me feel good.  

Inez Bersie-Mize, a Midwest Behavorial Health Family Therapist, has a wealth of knowledge about the subject of play. “I don’t think parents were as apt to play with kids as we do now,” says Mize. She goes on to explain that circumstances have changed a lot since we were kids. Playing dress-up or Jedi Knights with your kids happens more now than it ever has. But one thing Mize stresses is the actual importance of the play itself. 

“Play with adults is different in that, when you can get an adult to play and interact and have this very make believe world, you start to understand what’s OK and what’s not OK. You start to get social norms when adults participate. There’s some difference between child/adult play and child/child play.” 

 So, I’ll leave the fort in my four-season porch. I’ll vacuum it occasionally; pick up the occasional juice box or Cheez-it cracker; crawl into it from time to time with my son. And I’ll try to give him as much free time with himself or his friends for play that I can. And when I’m able, I’ll pick up a light saber and head out into the yard. 

To quote Muffy Mead-Ferro, author of Confessions of a Slacker Mom:

“Were our ancestors just slackers? Not at the time. Maybe, like my parents and grandparents, I can trust myself to be a mom without a reference library to tell me how. Maybe I know how. Or by God, I’ll figure it out.” 

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