The power of play: unstructured fun vs. organized activities

Claire McCarthy, MD

Natasha doesn’t want to go to swim camp this summer.

Of course, she waits until I’ve sent out the emails to the other swim team moms discussing weeks and carpools before she tells me that the only thing she really liked about it last year was that I let her have Lunchables for lunch (I never buy that stuff, not sure what got into me). Apparently she didn’t get to spend much time with her friends, the kids in her lane were pushy, and games they played when they were out of the pool weren’t very fun. “They taught us the same stuff I learn in practice, anyway,” she said.

Summer is still a few months away, but now is when we need to start making plans if we want to get the weeks that work at the camps we want. The thing is, I can’t seem to generate any interest in camp among my children. I don’t know if it’s just too hard to think about summer with the piles of snow outside, but there is no enthusiasm to be found.

This may not be a terrible thing. It would be nice not to have to get everyone up and out in the morning. And a cheaper summer would be helpful, with both high school and college tuitions to pay next year. We have a family vacation planned for two weeks in August, and thanks to all the snow days they won’t be out of school until the end of June, so it’s really just July that is blank. Still, it feels weird not to plan anything. Is it okay to say that the kids will just…play?

Growing up, we rarely had anything planned during the summers—but we kept busy. I remember getting up every morning, eating breakfast and heading out to find a friend to play. We’d roam the neighborhood, go to the beach by ourselves, roller skate to the ice cream store, heading home when we were called (out loud, not on a cell phone) for meals or when the street lights came on.

Things are different now. For the most part, life just doesn’t work that way—for lots of reasons. Parents don’t feel safe letting their children roam the neighborhood; fears of accidents and abductions loom large. With more single-parent families and families in which both parents work, and with extended family less likely to live nearby, children end up in daycare or daycamp out of necessity.

Years ago climbing a tree was a reasonable way for children to spend the day. Would you let your kids do this today?

But it’s more than just safety or necessity. Childhood has become more structured and organized. You don’t just play kickball with neighbors in the backyard; you go to soccer practice. You don’t knock on the door and ask if Jimmy can play; you call ahead for a playdate. The whole culture of childhood has changed. Activities are about enrichment and skill development and schedules. Fun is extra, sometimes optional.

And when kids aren’t in scheduled activities, they are likely to be in front of some kind of a screen. This is another huge change of childhood, and we’re seeing the ramifications in terms of obesity, aggressiveness and attentional disorders.

What is increasingly missing from childhood is play. And play is important. So important that the American Academy of Pediatrics actually wrote a report in 2006 explaining that children need play for:

  • Healthy development—it’s through play that children learn to explore their environment, negotiate, share, use their imaginations
  • Physical health—play gives children much-needed opportunities for exercise
  • Mental health—children, like adults, need the downtime play gives
  • Academic success—children learn better when there is time for play in their school day
  • Bonding with their parents and caregivers—play gives opportunities to build stronger, more nurturing relationships.

So maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to leave July blank. Maybe it would even be a good idea. Instead of swim camp, or Aquarium camp, or art camp, we’ll play.

Actually, that sounds like fun.