The State of Play

A Disappearance of Play

Society's well-being begins with a child's well-being, and play is central to a child's ability to grow into a productive adult. But Red Rover, fort building, dress up, and kickball are increasingly becoming a thing of the past as many forces conspire to make it more difficult for children to get the balance of active play they need. Today, we see a healthy balance of play falling victim to TV, video games, structured schedules, declining recess time, and a lack of access to safe play spaces.

Children are not playing at home

A study comparing mothers to their children found that 70 percent of mothers said they played outside every day when they were girls, while only 31 percent said their children did the same. And 56 percent said they played outside for three or more hours, while only 22 percent said this about their children. Moreover, 85 percent said children today play outside less often than children of a few years ago. 85 percent said the top reason for this decline was time spent watching TV and playing computer/video games. Kids spend a lot of time in front of entertainment screens—televisions, computers, and smaller electronic devices. Even the most conservative estimates put screen time for children ages 0 to 8 at two hours per day, and a recent University of Michigan Health System study found that 26% of parents report that their children 2–5 years old have three or more hours of daily entertainment screen time. Other studies show that usage increases dramatically as children get older—as 8- to 10-year-olds are on screens for five and a half hours per day.

Children are not playing in schools

A 2009 study published in the journal Pediatrics found that 30 percent of children surveyed had little to no recess in their school day. That's nearly one in three kids. This is in spite of research, such as a Gallup poll revealing that elementary school principals overwhelmingly believe recess has a positive impact not only on the development of students' social skills, but also on achievement and learning in the classroom.

Play helps children adjust to the school setting, and enhances their learning readiness, behavior, and problem solving skills. Schools without recess face increased incidents of classroom behavioral problems, which detract from learning time.

Play also may increase children's capacity to store new information, as their cognitive capacity is enhanced when they are offered drastic changes in activity—switching from English to math is not enough.

The decline of time for recess, and other opportunities for active play in school, is happening across the board.

A 2008 report from the Center on Education Policy found that between 2001–2002 and 2006–07, 16 percent of schools cut art and music and 20 percent cut recess. But it disproportionately affects the 16 million American children living in poverty.

In the same report, high-poverty elementary schools were four to five times more likely to go without recess (18–28 percent) than schools with the lowest percentage of children in poverty (4–5 percent).

Children are not playing in our communities

Play is critical to knitting our communities together and helping children learn to work with others. As our world becomes ever more connected digitally, it is critical that we don’t lose the unique community building that comes from interacting face-to-face. Play builds communities and teaches children how to interact with peers and adults, relieve stress, and cope with their surroundings.

In order to encourage play, it is critical that children have safe places to play within walking distance of where they live. Without it, the strength and resilience of the community is compromised.

Not all children have access to play, and the availability of playspaces is far more restricted in low-income neighborhoods.

Between 1981 and 1997, time spent playing by children age six to eight declined by 25 percent. Peter Gray, Ph.D. and Professor of Psychology at Boston College, observed that the loss of play for play’s sake coincided with a dramatic increase in anxiety, depression, and suicide rates among teens and young adults.

All children need balanced and active play every day to thrive

Active Minds, Active Bodies, Active Together graphic

Active Minds

Play activities help children create, explore, solve, and imagine—which helps their brain develop, builds important creative thinking and problem-solving skills, and contributes to emotional well-being. For example:

Active Bodies

Play activities get children up and running around, developing motor skills and coordination, and building healthy bodies, and habits, for life.

  • Physical play contributes to the development of gross motor skills, control, coordination, and strength.
  • Healthy lifestyle habits formed through play, including physical activity, can lower the risk of becoming obese and the related risks of high blood pressure and high cholesterol, Type 2 diabetes, breathing problems, joint problems, and social and psychological problems.
  • Analysis based on data from the National Survey of Children's Health (2007)indicate that children without neighborhood access to parks or playgrounds are 26 percent more likely to be obese and 23 percent more likely to be overweight than children with neighborhood access to parks or playgrounds.

Active Together

Play brings friends together and families together, teaching kids how to interact as part of a group, resolving conflicts, and strengthening bonds.