We have lived through a period of unprecedented loss of time for play for people of all ages. On average, children who spend a minimum of six hours a day in school receive 26 minutes of recess–and this includes the time they have to eat lunch. And five-year-olds in kindergarten classrooms across the country have less than 30 minutes of free play time per week, with the numbers even lower in poor communities. This is a global problem, a study of 16 countries, including the United States, India, Vietnam and Pakistan, found that children had fewer opportunities for free play than previous generations.
This is not just a concern for children, as research also shows that adults are working more, playing less, and are plagued by the increased stress that comes with unstable economic conditions, and ongoing environmental and international crisis. The loss of play is taking a toll. Increases in childhood obesity, depression, suicide and anxiety disorders, as well as a decline in adult productivity and overall wellbeing have all been linked to the loss of time for play.
The negative impact should come as no surprise. While the amount of time for play is diminishing, the awareness of its importance for human development is increasing. In the past ten years play has been linked to our capacity to collaborate with others, handle trauma and loss, be compassionate and empathetic, develop stick-to-itiveness, self-regulate, problem solve, and live healthier lives. And, beyond the ways that play helps individuals to lead happier and more adjusted lives, new understandings also show that play is the driving force behind individual, societal and species creativity and transformation. It is by playing that we go beyond adaptation to what is, to create what is currently impossible or even inconceivable. The growing economic, social, educational, emotional, and political crisis that are facing our species are not going to be solved by adapting to what already exists. We are going to have to be creative, in other words we are going to have to play our way forward.
As a play researcher, I am actually quite hopeful. While there is no arguing that play has been pushed out of many of its traditional locations, there is also reason for hope. I am part of a broad community of researchers, advocates, and practitioners who are bringing play into arenas that are in desperate need of transformation. In addition to preschools and schoolyards we are finding space for play in refugee camps, and in corporate boardrooms. Play practitioners in organizations like In the Moment and Actionplay are on the frontlines in the fight to bring humanity to Alzheimer’s patients and their families and to provide youth and adults diagnosed on the Autism spectrum with ways to be who they are and to be with others at the same time. The All Stars Project has partnered with the New York City Police Department to bring inner city youth and police officers together to play and perform and in the process create new kinds of relationships that are not determined by their societal identities. These are just a few of the thousands of ways that play is helping people to challenge the status quo. So I am hopeful. There is a play movement afoot and it was built for the current historical moment.
Carrie Lobman, Ed.D., is associate professor of education at the Graduate School of Education Rutgers University and the Institute’s director of pedagogy.