Kids Need Leisure Time as Much as Adults Do
Without time for unstructured play, children’s mental health suffers.
Posted March 10, 2023 | Reviewed by Tyler Woods
- Children and teens currently suffer from depression and anxiety at unprecedented rates.
- As time in the classroom has increased, time for play and informal interaction with peers has diminished.
- Without time to get bored, children lose their ability to think creatively.
As the old saying goes, “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Recent research (Gray et al., 2023) is showing that not only is Jack “dull,” but he also might be clinically depressed or overly anxious.
We’ve spent several recent decades trying to encourage adults to engage in self-care activities and to not leave any vacation time on the table at work. Two decades ago, there was a lot of buzz about the book The Overscheduled Child, which provided clear warnings about the damage “over-parenting” could do. We’ve known what needs doing but have neglected our own advice when it comes to our children.
The child and adolescent mental health crisis is upon us, with kids experiencing depression and anxiety, among other disorders, at record rates.
While no one wants their child at risk of physical harm, we also should care enough about our kids that we don’t create situations in which they are at risk of emotional harm. More than one still-living generation spent a great deal of their childhood engaged in the activities that kids concoct when they are “bored”: playing pick-up ballgames, exploring unknown territories (i.e., somebody’s backyard woods), challenging one another to contests of strength or brains, races, arm wrestling, or snow day-long board games.
It's not just nostalgia that brings back childhood memories of wild freedom and not coming home until the street lights came on. It’s memories of key moments in our lives when we were figuring out our place in the world and how we fit into a larger group beyond school and family.
Rob Oldenberg wrote about “third places,” those places where adults show up and are accepted for who they are and given space to share their views, air their complaints, and seek support. The fictional bar in Cheers is the closest many of us come to knowing what that kind of place is like. We all long for a space where we can find community and a sense of belonging. It’s what allows civilizations to develop and be maintained. When we give someone a space to share their thoughts, or we give them a nod or a thumb’s up, we are treating them in a way that acknowledges them and lets them know they are heard.
What does that have to do with kids?
Think about the world of a child—they are required to follow the rules of their families at home, always aware of their place in the family hierarchy. In schools, they are governed by another set of adults who have the power to control the child’s daily routine, five days a week. If a child is engaged in extracurricular activities, it’s likely that there is yet another adult who is laying down the rules, setting parameters, and controlling the action.
Once upon a time, even fairly isolated kids lived in homes with at least one or two siblings. This gave them some type of reference group where they vied for power and plotted schemes for entertainment’s sake. Today, there are more singleton children than in prior generations, so even the give-and-take of sibling engagement is off the table as a development tool.
So, what is the fallout for our kids from being micromanaged on a daily basis?
According to the study by Gray et al., the absence of free play time results in an absence of optimal mental health. Kids are herded from place to place with little opportunity to engage in creative play, informal social engagement, and interactions with peers. Instead, there's an overreliance on others, and electronics, to provide stimulation, solve problems, or make decisions.
Much has been written about the benefits of “being bored,” as boredom is often a motivator to get creative and see what new idea or project takes your fancy.
Humans need social interaction in order to be able to understand others and the world, experience empathy, and practice altruism; all skills that help societies thrive. Kids who never learn how to befriend others, defend themselves, or stealthily explore new environs may be stunting both their intellectual and emotional development.
There are many threats to kids that lurk outside the safety of the home, but by creating clear rules and boundaries about activity beyond the home, parents are setting up safe zones where kids can engage in leisure activities and the causal give-and-take with peers that can help them get the best start on building healthy relationships across the lifespan. Cellphones, trackers, and rules about where a child can go and how long they can stay create parameters according to which children can show their trustworthiness and earn increasing opportunities for adventure.
The research on adults’ mental health and happiness indicates that when it comes to the basics, aside from a healthy diet and adequate sleep, we also need time outdoors, social engagement, a sense of belonging and a feeling that we matter, and time to just be and let go of the stress we tend to bottle up over the course of the day.
Making sure your child has all these things can help protect them from compromised mental health while instilling confidence and competence. Everyone benefits from a little boredom—it’s good motivation to think creatively about life and what to do next.
Gray, P., Lancy, D. F., & Bjorklund, D. F.. Decline in independent activity as a cause of decline in children’s mental wellbeing: Summary of the evidence. The Journal of Pediatrics, 2023; DOI: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2023.02.004
Oldenberg, R. The great good place. (1989). New York: Paragon House.
Rosenfeld, A., Wise, N., & Coles, R. (2001). The overscheduled child. St. Martin’s Griffin.