When I look at the world today, I am so grateful that I grew up when I did. As I kid, I played. It helped me figure things out on my own, and I believe it helped me become a resilient, well-rounded adult. In a world that seems to revolve around scheduled play dates, I know that my time as a kid spent just playing was beyond valuable—especially since I had my son. Play increases resilience—among other qualities we want our kids to develop.
Children nowadays aren’t getting nearly as much independent play. Perhaps that’s why they’re less resilient on the whole. Perhaps that’s why children today—our children—are largely facing a mental health crisis. Lack of play isn’t the only thing that’s hampering our kids’ development. Too much screentime and social media exposure play a role, too, experts say.
How can we make our kids more resilient? Experts say independent play is one thing that can absolutely help them solve problems, bounce back after adversity and learn to take some much-needed downtime. They’ve even gone so far as to suggest prescribing play—the same way they do with medications.
What’s the point of play?
What kids do when they’re playing may look completely boring or unnecessary—or downright risky—but it’s important for their development. According to some experts, a childhood devoid of play is responsible for declining well-being.
Authors of that report believe a primary cause of the rise in mental health conditions is less time to play, roam and engage in activities that aren’t controlled by adults. The decline in independent play isn’t new; it’s been dwindling over decades. Independent play can produce a direct source of satisfaction and foster mental characteristics that can help kids deal with the stresses of life, the researchers say.
Benefits of play
“Play is not frivolous: it enhances brain structure and function and promotes executive function (the process of learning, rather than the content), which allow us to pursue goals and ignore distractions,” authors of a 2018 study on play wrote. They’re all for pediatricians prescribing play.
It’s not just play, it’s movement as well
When we think about the play experiences we want our kids to have, it’s not all mental challenges—physical activity counts, too.
When children participate in regular physical activity (at least moderate intensity counts), it contributes to a lower endocrine response to potentially stressful situations, the authors said. In other words, it helps their bodies handle stress better… building resilience in the body and the mind.
Getting out of the way of play as adults
It’s hard to hear about the much-needed play that our kids, largely, aren’t getting. At the same time, you can’t guilt yourself too much about it. Instead, try to foster independent play and independence overall.
Camilo Ortiz, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Long Island University, cautions parents not to let their fear of crime stand in the way of helping their children develop independence.
“There are neighborhoods where some independence activities may need to be adjusted, although definitely not curtailed,” Dr. Ortiz said.
Our efforts to facilitate play—as in, the playdate—aren’t bad, per say. We may still be able to have play dates and give our kids some sense of independent play… all without leaving them completely unsupervised.
“Spontaneous independent play doesn’t mean that as parents we need to completely abandon children to their own devices,” said Jacqueline Harding, PhD, an early childhood lecturer at Middlesex University London.
“The foundation for resilience is indeed built during play through activities like starting over again when the block tower falls, discovering multiple uses for objects, testing what a body can and can’t do,” said Susan Bauerfield, PhD, a clinical psychologist from Connecticut.
Parents can support resilience, especially in older kids, by focusing on supporting them and showing confidence in their ability to cope with the struggles and mistakes they naturally make, Dr. Bauerfield added.
When kids are confident that they matter more to their parents than their achievements and mistakes, they are more likely to have the courage to step toward challenges and the confidence to cope with disappointment, failure, and the like, she said.
Lynn Lyons, LICSW, a psychotherapist from New Hampshire, pointed out that “free play” isn’t defined solely on where it happens—it’s about how it happens, too.
“More and more, parents want to orchestrate play,” Lyons explained. “They want children to learn and benefit from activities, so they curate the ‘play’ with activities and instruction and oversight.”
The push for concocted play is “misguided,” Lyons said, because “the value of play is allowing a child to wander around in their own wonderfully muddled development, come up against obstacles, discover what works and what doesn’t.”
Forging forward—playfully, of course
Dr. Harding, author of The Brain that Loves to Play, said young children’s brains are made to be playful—and play is a must for brain development.
Rich sensory experiences and exploration help their brains create new neural pathways that can become the foundation for learning and growth. She suggested laying out cardboard materials and fabric to see what happens. Music and cooking can also be ways to engage.
“Children are naturally wired to play and any sustained deviation from this masterful design comes at a price,” Harding said in a statement.
It’s only when the adults aren’t there that kids become the adults. They solve the problems, invent the games, organize the other kids.
Lenore Skenazy, co-founder of the Let Grow movement
“Like every adult I know, when I’m around kids and see them being mean to each other, or bored, or doing something slightly risky, hard, or frustrating, I jump in,” Skenazy explained. “But the way I learned those skills was through real life practice. Through playing with my friends, sometimes arguing, sometimes imagining, sometimes inventing.”
Adults are hardwired to intervene, so the only solution to not intervening is to not always be around, Skenazy said. That doesn’t mean you abandon your child, but it means that you figure out situations when you can let them be independent.
“Neglect is when you put your child in serious, obvious danger—not anytime you take your eyes off them,” Skenazy added.
How to encourage more independent play
What can you do to help your kiddo, well, play?
There are different types of play: object play, physical play, outdoor play and social or pretend play. They can be alone or with others.
Simple items like wooden spoons, blocks, crayons, and boxes can be inspiring—and fun. (Don’t forget a sensory bin—my son and I love making ones with different themes.) I leave things out so he can play alone, and I offer to join when I can.
Peter Gray, PhD, a research professor in psychology and neuroscience at Boston College, suggests talking to other parents nearby about the value for kids to have free outdoor play. Then arrange a time to get them together. You can select one parent to supervise for safety, but not have a group of parents watching.
Talk with your child about an independent adventure and decide how to make it happen (safely, of course), Dr. Gray said.
You can also think about a playcation with other families so the kids can run off and be kids, away from the adults.
Or set up play time at school to enable free play—a Let Grow Play Club.
“An adult is on premises, but they’re like a lifeguard—they don’t organize the games or solve the spats,” Skenazy explained.
“All sorts of issues bubble up in free play, and in dealing with them, kids develop the skills a lot of us want them to get: creativity, compromise, communication, focus and even executive function,” Skenazy added.
Our kids are never too old to play or develop a sense of independence from play—and it could be the very thing that helps them be more resilient in today’s wild world.
Camilo Ortiz, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Long Island University
Jacqueline Harding, PhD, early childhood lecturer at Middlesex University London
Susan Bauerfield, PhD, clinical psychologist from Connecticut
Peter Gray, PhD, research professor in psychology and neuroscience at Boston College
Lynn Lyons, LICSW, psychotherapist from New Hampshire
Gray P, et al. Decline in Independent Activity as a Cause of Decline in Children’s Mental Well-being: Summary of the Evidence. The Journal of Pediatrics. 2023. doi:10.1016/j.jpeds.2023.02.004
Yogman M, et al. The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children. Pediatrics. 2018. doi:10.1542/peds.2018-2058.