Lack of Play is Killing Our Kids…and We Have the Antidote!

RITCH HOCHSTETLER

Growing up, I would go through two pairs of sneakers each summer due to the wear and tear of continuous daily outdoor play. There were many days when I ran and played with a group of neighborhood kids until dark, engaging in every sport imaginable, going on adventures, riding bikes, and exploring our world with mischievous and imaginative delight. Our skinned knees, petty conflicts, epic failures, joyful discoveries, and brilliant successes were evidence enough to convict us in the court of play. We had fun!

In Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness, he lays out research that shows how kid’s brains have been robbed of play and rewired through the use of smartphones and social media. The amount of time that kids spend on screens – an average of 7hrs a day, has pushed out play-based learning, and the effects have been devastating.

In 2023 the US Surgeon General’s report proclaimed an epidemic of loneliness – loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection in our country. Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately half of U.S. adults reported experiencing measurable levels of loneliness. Disconnection fundamentally affects our mental, physical, and societal health. In fact, loneliness and isolation increase the risk for individuals to develop mental health challenges in their lives, and lacking connection can increase the risk for premature death. Coupled this with Jonathan Haidt’s reporting that since 2010 anxiety and depression for both boys & girls has risen 100-150%, and the dramatic increase in emergency room visits for child self-harm, and the alarm bells resound.

Play, as Peter Gray describes it, is the primary work of childhood. Research clearly shows that all young mammals need play to develop social skills including self-governance, stress tolerance, emotional regulation, and social connection. Play is essential for healthy brain development as it creates resilience needed for kids to process and deal with frustrations, teasing, exclusion and normal conflicts that are foundational to human interaction.

In the world of experiential education, when we speak of play, we often use the acronym; F.U.N.N. which stands for functional understanding not necessary. What this points to is the shear value of an activity or social interaction in and of itself. This means there’s no need to manipulate or overthink or justify a learning outcome. Play, at its core, is autotelic, which means; of an activity or a creative work having an end or purpose in itself.

Anthropologists have another angle on the power of play and the way it anchors our humanity. The term they have for it is galumphing, and it is one of the prime talents that characterize higher life forms. Galumphing is the immaculately rambunctious and seemingly inexhaustible play-energy apparent in puppies, kittens, children, baby baboons – and also in young communities and civilizations. “

Stephen Nachmanovitch, in his book Free Play-The Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts, states;

“Galumphing is the seemingly useless elaboration and ornamentation of activity. It is profligate, excessive, exaggerated, and un-economical. We galumph when we hop instead of walk, when we take the scenic route instead of the efficient one, when we play a game whose rules demand limitation of our powers. When we are interested in means rather than in ends. We voluntarily create obstacles in our path and then enjoy overcoming them.” 

At ULEAD, we incorporate play in all of our training programs, and have seen the benefits with both students and adults. Experiential educator Mark Collard says that “You can’t change how people think or what they do without first changing how they feel. “Fun, taken seriously, is the key. It answers the ‘What’s in it for me?’ question everybody is asking.” We take fun (and play) so seriously that we incorporated it into our organization values. “We believe purposeful play opens opportunities for learning, deeper engagement with others, and a life filled with joy”. A core commitment that moves this value from aspirational to operative is “Make Learning Fun!”

The reality is, our play deficit is killing us, and we have the antidote. Anyone can choose to have a play mindset. Every day, we can choose to get off of screens and into the game. Our kids need it and adults need it as well! How much fun or F.U.N.N. or play do you experience in life? When is the last time you galumphed or laughed so hard that your stomach hurt or you almost peed your pants? What if lack of play in our lives is about more than work/life balance, and that it actually rises to the level of risking our health? I encourage you to take a moment today to stop all purposeful activity and do something that requires nothing but your joyful and unfiltered participation. And while you’re at it, invite the students you lead and teach to join in the fun. It just might change everything.

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