Lack of Free Play Among Children Explored in American Journal of Play

American Journal of Play News Release
One Manhattan Square Rochester, NY 14607 • 585-263-2700 •

August 25, 2011

For Immediate Release

Lack of Free Play Among Children
Explored in American Journal of Play®

(Note: The American Journal of Play is available free online:

Go out and play! Parents today are less likely than ever to utter these words. However, hovering helicopter parents who restrict their kids’ unstructured play may actually harm, rather than help, children according to an interview with Lenore Skenazy (syndicated columnist and author of Free-Range Kids) and Hara Estroff Marano (author of A Nation of Wimps). The authors’ condemnation of overprotective parenting appears in a special themed issue of the American Journal of Play devoted entirely to the importance of free play among children. Guest editor Peter Gray, Research Professor of Psychology at Boston College, has gathered a distinguished group of contributors who probe the near-extinction of free play and its effects on children and society from historic, anthropologic, and psychological perspectives.

Says Gray, “Remarkably, over the last 50 years, opportunities for children to play freely have declined continuously and dramatically in the United States and other developed nations; and that decline continues, with serious negative consequences for children’s physical, mental, and social development. This special issue of the American Journal of Play reviews the evidence for the crucial roles of play in children’s development and proposes ways we may create a world in which play—especially free outdoor play with other children—is once again a normative part of childhood.”

In the special free-play issue of the American Journal of Play:

“Why Parents Should Stop Overprotecting Kids and Let them Play”, an interview with Lenore Skenazy and Hara Estroff Marano: Skenazy (who set off a firestorm of national controversy when she allowed her nine-year-old son to ride a New York City subway by himself) and Marano point accusing fingers at over-protective parents, over-organized sports, overblown media hype about stranger danger, and the allure of electronic games and social media, which have combined to decrease the amount of free play among today’s children. Without free outdoor play, says Marano, kids are prone to obesity, poor physical health, and an inability to develop social skills gained from gathering and playing freely with others. They become risk averse and excessively cautious adults with an impaired ability to solve problems. Says Skenazy, “I do what I call ‘yuppie jujitsu,’ which is that I take the critics’ fears about unsupervised play and try to turn them into fears about what happens if their children don’t play and don’t develop creativity, compassion, and communication. A child who doesn’t engage in unsupervised free play doesn’t develop the self-regulation that comes from hearing another kid say, ‘It’s not your turn, go to the end of the line. .  .’”  Marano says parents should “let the leash out gradually, allowing kids to become responsible for themselves in relatively small increments.” To stimulate play, she suggests that parents would do well to mark off a space in which it’s okay for kids to play away from parental oversight, provide some novel equipment outdoors, and then “leave the kids alone.” 

“The Special Value of Children’s Age-Mixed Play” by Peter Gray, Research Professor of Psychology at Boston College: Gray notes that the modern segregation of kids into same-age groups, common in today’s classrooms and school yards, may not be optimal for child development. Same-age play is an “odd image” in human cultural and evolutionary history and was rare among our human and great ape ancestors who played and explored in mixed-age groups. Gray studied mixed-age play at Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts, where students ages four to 18 are free to roam the school’s 10-acre campus, associate as they please, and regularly interact across large gaps in age. He observed that during age-mixed play, older, more skilled participants “provide scaffolds that raise the level of the younger participants’ play” and stretch their abilities to higher levels. Gray cites other studies in which older children were observed exposing younger children to more complex concepts of literacy, math, and sociability. By interacting with younger children, older students develop increased capacities to nurture, lead, and learn by teaching; and they are inspired by younger children to engage in more creative activities.

“The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescents" by Peter Gray, Research Professor of Psychology at Boston College: Gray presents a review of research showing a correlation between the decline of free play in developed nations and the rise of depression, suicide, feelings of helplessness, and narcissism in children, teens, and young adults.

“Evolutionary Functions of Social Play: Life Histories, Sex Differences, and Emotional Regulation” by Peter LaFreniere, Professor of Psychology at the University of Maine: LaFreniere reviews research about free play from an evolutionary biologist perspective and asserts that evolved patterns of play help children develop strong bones and muscles, promote cardiovascular fitness, and help hone skills of communication, perspective taking, and emotion regulation.

 “Marbles and Machiavelli: The Role of Game Play in Children’s Social Development” by David F. Lancy, Professor of Anthropology at Utah State University, and M. Annette Grove: The authors review several case studies of children engaged in rule-governed play and conclude that the process of learning rules—and of breaking them and making new ones—promotes gamesmanship, which is theoretically linked to the evolution of human intelligence. They question the benefits of adult-managed child play and assess the impact it may have on the ability of children to develop gamesmanship. 

“Empowering Groups That Enable Play” by David Sloan Wilson, SUNY Distinguished Professor for the Department of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University;Danielle Marshall, Senior Manager of Research and  Education at KaBOOM!;  and Hindi Isherhoff, former board president of City Repair: A discussion of the scientific literature supporting the experience of two national organizations creating outdoor environments for play —KaBOOM! And City Repair.

“The Design Your Own Park Competition: Empowering Neighborhoods and Restoring Outdoor Play on a Citywide Scale” by David Sloan Wilson, SUNY Distinguished Professor for the Department of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University: Wilson describes the thinking behind and implementation of the Design Your Own Park (DYOP) Competition, a collaborative project of a university, a city, and a fund-raising organization to empower neighborhoods and restore outdoor play citywide in Binghamton, New York.

 The American Journal of Play, an interdisciplinary scholarly journal devoted solely to the study of play, is published by The Strong in Rochester, New York. The journal is available free online at