Play, by definition, is self-controlled and self-directed, it’s the self-directed aspect of play that gives it its educative power.
Here are some of the reasons why play has declined. One, of course, is the increased weight of school. But an even more important reason, as important as that one is, I think, an even more important reason for the decline of play has been the spread outside of the school walls of, what I call, a schoolish view of child development. The view that children learn best everything, from adults, that children’s own self-directed activities with other children are wastes of time. We don’t often say it that way, but that’s the implicit understanding that underlies so much of our policy with regard to children. So, childhood is turned from a time of freedom to a time of résumé building.
Another reason, of course, has to do with the spread of fears, really, mostly irrational fears, spread by the media, spread by experts who are constantly warning us of the dangers out there, if we don’t watch our children every minute that they are out there. Many people recognize the absurdity of some of these extreme fears, but yet, once we get them in our head, it’s hard to shake them. I know many parents who would love to let their kids play outdoors, and they think it would be great to, but they just can’t get rid of that idea.
In addition, there is a kind of self-generative quality due to the decline of play. Once there are fewer kids out there playing, the outdoors becomes less attractive. It also becomes less safe. So that kid who does go outdoors, finds nobody to play with and goes back inside.
Now I don’t want to romanticize the 1950s, there is a lot of ways in which we are a much better world today than we were then, but we are a much worse world for kids.
Over the same decades that play has been declining, we have seen a well-documented increase in all sorts of mental disorders in childhood. The best evidence for this comes from the use of standardized clinical assessment questionnaires. Based on such assessments, five to eight times as many children today suffer from major depression or from a clinically significant anxiety disorder as was true in the 1950s. And this has been a continuous, gradual, roughly linear increase over the years, very well-documented.
Over the same period, we have seen among young people, from age 15 to 24, a doubling of the suicide rate. We have seen among children aged 15 and under, a quadrupling of the suicide rate.
Over the same period of time, the suicide rate for people my age has gone down considerably. We’ve become a worse world for children, not necessarily a worse world for adults, and may be a better world for us, older adults.
We’ve also seen a decline of the young people’s sense that they have control over their own lives. There is a questionnaire called the internal-external locus of control scale. There is a version of this for children, as well as for adults. It’s been given since about 1960. Ever since it’s been given, we have seen a decline, a continuous decline, in children’s and young adults’ sense that they have control over their own lives. They have more and more of a sense that their lives are controlled by fate, by circumstance, by other people’s decisions.
Now this is significant in terms of the relationship between anxiety and depression because one thing clinical psychologists know very well is that not having an internal sense of control sets you up for anxiety and depression.
More bad news. We have also seen in fairly recent years, due to the questionnaires that have been given out since about 1980, a rise in narcissism in young people and a decline in empathy. And most recently, there have been research studies, analyzing results of tests of creativity over the years, which show that there has been a gradual decline in creative thinking among children, schoolchildren of all grades, since about the mid-1980s.
Now, of course, as any social scientist will tell you, correlation doesn’t prove cause and effect. But in this case, I think that there is good reason to believe that the decline in play is the cause of these deleterious changes. For one thing the correlation is very good, especially the correlation between the decline in play, which seems to be roughly linear beginning around 1955 on through today, correlates very well with the roughly linear increase in anxiety and depression among young people. It doesn’t correlate with things like economic cycles or wars.
Children are more depressed today than they were during the Great Depression. They are more anxious today than they were during the Cold War when they were continuously being warned of the threat of nuclear holocaust that could happen any time.
In addition, play — everything we know about play tells us that these are the effects we would expect if children are deprived of play. They are analogous to the effects we see in animals when we take play away from animals.
Play is where children learn that they are in control of their life, it’s really the only place they are in control of their own life. When we take that away, we don’t give them the chance to learn how to control their own life.
Play is where they learn to solve their own problems and learn therefore that the world is not so scary after all. Play is where they experience joy and they learn the world is not so depressing after all.