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All Work and No Play: The State of Kids’ Free Time

Play is serious business—but kids today have less unstructured time for it than ever before. No matter the age or stage, here’s how caregivers can encourage their children to have fun—and get in on the action, too.

A Letter From Parents' Editor-In-Chief

Confession time: I eavesdrop on my children. Yes, every time I hear them playing with their dolls, I hold my breath for a few seconds and listen in. If you’re shaking your head, let me explain. My daughters are 9 and 7 and sometimes they don’t want to share details of their day. They’re tired. They can’t remember. Maybe they just don’t want to talk about it. I get it. But paying attention to the narratives and characters they create during this unstructured time gives me insights into how they see themselves and those around them.

More importantly, these moments of pretend play equip them with a variety of skills—problem-solving, collaboration, creativity, the list goes on—to make sense of the world. As Fred Rogers once said, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning.” 

Yet, between shortened recess, increased homework loads, and constant test prep, my fourth and second graders aren’t getting enough time in the day to just, well, play. Chances are that your kids aren’t either. In fact, numerous studies point to the decline of free time due to academic pressure.

This trend and the pandemic’s effect on how kids socialize (cue Minecraft and Roblox!) prompted us to take a deep dive into what play looks like now. Because while you and I may have spent the bulk of our free time offline as children, most kids today are drawn to digital devices. The reason? These virtual spaces give them a sense of community and connectedness that, according to research, enhances their well-being. This is also true for Black teens who are able to band together online, despite the underwhelming number of Black protagonists in games and the racial microaggressions they often experience in these spaces. 

Teenagers in general benefit from any type of play. It reduces stress, protects their mental health, and brings them joy. And who doesn’t want to infuse more happiness into their child’s daily life? I’m not saying you should dust off the costume box in the basement for your 16-year-old. But getting involved in the fun—even leading it—goes a long way for kids, no matter their age.

Before you get all melting-face-emoji on me from exhaustion, know that play can be defined a bunch of different ways. Building a puzzle, wrestling, shoveling snow (some chores count!)—take your pick. In my house, we play dominoes together. It’s a game I learned as a child through osmosis during my family’s epic tournaments. We would carve out the time to play because it was something we all enjoyed, including my abuelita, whose competitive streak may have been passed down to my kids. These girls don’t like to lose! Yet, I refuse to just let them win. Not only is it more fun for my husband and myself, but I also know that competitive play builds resilience.

We just need to keep working on their sportsmanship. Because those in-between moments when I see them sorting and classifying their dominoes or strategizing their next move are truly worth making the effort. Plus, the old proverb about all work and no play making for a dull existence goes for grownups, too.

So, how do you play together as a family? If you don’t yet, hopefully we can inspire you to get in on the fun.

 — Grace Bastidas

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