"We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing."
—George Bernard Shaw
According to research, children in the U.S. today spend less time outdoors than any other generation. On average, they devote only four to seven minutes per day to unstructured outdoor play; meanwhile, they spend an average of seven and a half hours daily in front of electronic media.
Unstructured time outside is essential to children's development, creativity, and sense of self. It offers early exposure to freedom and exploration. As Madeline Levine explains in her book Teach Your Children Well, "Kids who have more opportunities for unstructured play develop more flexible problem-solving skills as well as higher levels of creativity than kids who don’t."
New Dream asked members of our Community in Action Facebook group to recall a favorite childhood play memory, and every single response involved free time in the nearby outdoors. Here are some examples:
"Catching fireflies. Digging a hole to China in the backyard. Reading books in the treehouse. Splashing in the giant 'oak tree puddle.'"
“Riding our big wheels on the sidewalk around our neighbor's house. I still remember anticipating the hill and the thrill of speeding around the corner. Also, doing acrobatics on our swing set and using wax paper to speed up the slide where we'd put a kiddie pool at the bottom.”
“We had a safe, stable neighborhood, secure home, popsicles, bikes, sandboxes, swings. We ran thru the neighborhood from morning until night. I look back and I think it was just about the best time in all of history.”
“There are so many [memories], but most of them started with boredom and freedom."
“My sister and I, and sometimes our friends, would pretend that we lived in the woods and make 'houses' in the rhododendron trees. I always liked to stay close enough to still see our real house, but our imaginations would run wild and free out there!"
As we grow older, we tend to abandon our desire for unstructured outdoor play, but it's still important as we enter our adult years. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the average American spends 93 percent of their life indoors (inside or in cars) and only 7 percent outdoors.
Lots of studies have pointed to the benefits of being outdoors for your physical and mental health. But research also shows that adults who exhibit high levels of playfulness—such as being "spontaneous, outgoing, creative, fun-loving, and lighthearted"—may be better at coping with stress, are more likely to lead active lifestyles, and are more likely to succeed academically.
Dr. Stuart Brown, in his book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, explains that "people who continue to play games, who continue to explore and learn throughout life, are not only much less prone to dementia and other neurological problems, but are also less likely to get heart disease and other afflictions that seem like they have nothing to do with the brain."
And if we stop playing, Brown says, our behavior becomes more fixed, we lose interest in new and different things, and we find fewer opportunities to take pleasure in the world around us.
The bottom line is that we need to continue to incorporate play into our busy lives—for our children and for ourselves as adults. So let’s disconnect from our devices and connect more with our children, our inner-children, each other, and mother nature. Let’s go out and play!
Take New Dream's Play! Challenge, and we'll provide inspiration and some easy steps to help you bring play back into your life!