About 30 years ago, something happened to the way kids play.
While American children had once commonly enjoyed the freedom to run around outside with minimal adult interference, they began to spend more time indoors where their parents could watch them. When they did go outside, they were more often accompanied by a grown-up; unstructured roughhousing and roleplaying were replaced by supervised play dates or carefully shepherded trips to the park. Kids began to spend more time in organized activities, like dance or sports, and less time in the kind of disorganized milling-about familiar to generations past.
The reasons for this shift were many: fears of kidnapping, stoked by a series of highly publicized cases; an increase in the length of the school year; parental anxieties about children’s futures in a time of growing income inequality and economic insecurity. The result was a 25 percent drop in children’s unstructured playtime between 1981 and 1997, setting in motion a pattern of less freedom and more adult surveillance that historians and child psychologists believe continues to this day. “All kinds of independent activities that used to be part of normal childhood have gradually been diminishing,” said Peter Gray, a psychology professor at Boston College who studies play.
The decline in kids’ unstructured time is bad for fun as structured activities like classes and sports in which adults are evaluating and judging kids’ performance can be more like work than play, Gray said. It’s bad for learning, because children need playtime to develop motor and social skills. And it could be hurting kids’ health — in a commentary earlier this year in the Journal of Pediatrics, Gray and his co-authors argue that the decline in play and independence could be one reason children and teens have reported skyrocketing levels of anxiety, depression, and sadness in recent years.
In a time when parents can be arrested for letting children play unsupervised, and threats to children, both real and perceived, seem only to multiply, giving a kid the freedom to roam can seem impossible. Still, experts say there are ways families can grant children more autonomy, as well as structural changes that can make schools, communities, and the country as a whole more friendly to children’s freedom. After all, “if you take away play from children, they’re going to be depressed,” Gray said. “What is life for anybody without play?”
How kids lost the freedom to play
A lot of experts trace the decline of play back to a spate of high-profile kidnappings. It started with Etan Patz, a 6-year-old New York City boy who disappeared in 1979 on the way to the bus stop, argues Paul Renfro, a history professor at Florida State University and the author of Stranger Danger: Family Values, Childhood, and the American Carceral State. His case was soon followed by the disappearances of Adam Walsh, Kevin Collins, and two Iowa paperboys — Johnny Gosch and Eugene Martin — who vanished during their routes (then, as now, the victims whose stories made the biggest headlines were white).
The crimes weren’t connected, nor were they indicative of a wider increase in child abductions. But they received enormous media attention, with the boys’ stories, photographs, and interviews with their grieving parents featured on newscasts across the country. Some of the boys’ images also appeared on the backs of milk cartons as part of a campaign launched by the nonprofit National Child Safety Council in 1984. The campaign only lasted a few years, but it had an outsize cultural impact, inspiring the bestselling young adult novel The Face on the Milk Carton and creating a climate in which families were “surrounded by reminders of missing children,” Renfro said.
The fear was such that 72 percent of parents feared their children getting abducted, according to one 1991 study — in another study, conducted in 1987, 44 percent of children said it was likely or highly likely that they would be kidnapped at some point. Newscasters claimed that 50,000 children were abducted every year.
The real figure was closer to 100, Renfro said, and children have always been more likely to be kidnapped by family members or other adults they know than by strangers. Still, “stranger danger” gripped the American unconscious and didn’t let go.
At the same time, commentators across the political spectrum were pushing the idea that “the American family” — really the white nuclear family with two parents and 2.5 children, living in the suburbs — was at risk, Renfro said. In addition to kidnappers, supposed dangers included women entering the workforce, a decline in the prosperity that white families had enjoyed in the wake of World War II, and a burgeoning gay rights movement. “The narrative of the family under threat and, by extension, the child under threat really takes hold and is really appealing to people in this particular moment,” Renfro said. (That narrative continues to this day, and fears of stranger danger can be seen in QAnon conspiracy theories about child trafficking, Renfro said, and in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric about “grooming.”)
These anxieties collided with another worry: that American schoolchildren were falling behind the rest of the world academically. In the second half of the 20th century, the length of the school year increased by five weeks, Gray said. Kids began getting homework as early as kindergarten, and recess and lunch got shorter. To compensate for the lack of exercise in school, parents began putting their children in more sports and other organized extracurricular activities. Meanwhile, the growing wealth gap increased middle-class parents’ fear for their children’s economic futures, as well as the pressure to go to college in order to find a good job. “Children began to be pressured, even early on, to build the kind of resume that would ultimately get them into a fancy college,” Gray said.
The result of all of this was a shift in how Americans thought and talked about childhood. Prior to the 1980s, parenting advice had often emphasized the importance of independence, Gray said — allowing children to walk to school on their own, play unsupervised, and hold part-time jobs when they were old enough. Starting in that decade, however, conventional wisdom began to shift toward the idea that children should be watched all the time.
The culture of parenting began to change, too, with the “latchkey kid” generation of the ’70s and early ’80s giving way to norms of intensive parenting and families spending more time together. Indeed, working moms in the 2010s spent as much time with their children as stay-at-home mothers in the 1970s. And while the rate of stranger kidnappings has not changed in recent decades, other risks, including school shootings and traffic fatalities, have grown.
The last 20 years or so have also seen a rise in parents’ access to “technology that allows us to know or to think we’re supposed to know exactly what our kids are doing,” said Lynn Lyons, a therapist who specializes in anxiety disorders. That includes everything from cellphones (which a majority of kids now have by age 12) to AirTags (which some parents use to track children) to parent portals at schools and day cares (which can send notifications about something as small as a baby’s dirty diaper).
The effect of smartphones themselves on children’s play is complex. While many blame screen time for a decline in active play, some research suggests that smartphones can enrich kids’ outdoor experiences by, for example, allowing them to listen to music or stay in touch with friends. For parents, however, the constant stream of information can be the opposite of reassuring, and lead them to further monitor and restrict their kids’ movements. “Access to more information about everything that’s going on doesn’t make you feel better,” Lyons said. “It actually makes you more anxious.”
Meanwhile, Black parents in particular have also had to contend with the risk of police brutality and other racist violence. In interviews with researchers, Black moms of sons have expressed “a baseline of concern every time their child walked out the door,” said J. Richelle Joe, a professor of counselor education at the University of Central Florida. “The concern was, will people who engage with my son see him as a threat, and will he potentially be harmed or even killed just for existing?”
As a Black mom living in majority-white Orange County, California, Trina Greene Brown says she didn’t let her son play outside on his own. “Some people will call that helicopter parenting,” said Brown, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Parenting for Liberation. “I would say it’s not helicopter parenting; it’s because Black people have often lived in helicopter environments where our children and ourselves and our bodies have been under heavy surveillance.”
Kids of color and low-income kids also face disproportionate structural barriers to spending time outside, from a lack of green space to levels of neighborhood crime. All these factors and more contribute to an environment in which, whether it’s for their sheer physical safety or out of concern for their economic future, kids are losing out on opportunities for free and independent play.
Playing is fun. It’s also necessary.
Such play, though, has a host of benefits, experts say. Free play helps develop kids’ executive functioning abilities, a set of skills that includes planning and self-control, Lyons said. It’s also important for building friendships. One study, conducted in Switzerland in the 1990s, compared children who played unsupervised in their neighborhoods to children who spent more time playing in parks with their parents looking on. The free-playing kids had more than twice as many friends as the park visitors, and had better social and motor skills — they also spent more time outside overall.
Play can also be a way for kids to develop a sense of autonomy, which in turn helps them feel good about themselves. Regardless of age, “people are happier and mentally healthier when they feel that they are in charge of their own lives,” Gray said. “When people feel that they’re not in charge, that other people are making their decisions for them, they don’t feel so good.”
Indeed, the presence of grown-ups seems to diminish the psychological benefits of kids’ activities, experts say. “The more that play for kids is organized and directed by adults, the less opportunities that kids have to develop some really important skills that we know are preventive for anxiety — and, because anxiety is so closely linked to depression, to depression as well,” Lyons said.
These and other mental health problems have been on the rise among kids and teens for decades — one in 11 American children today has an anxiety disorder, and a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this year found that almost three in five teenage girls experienced persistent sadness in 2021, the highest level in 10 years. Experts and armchair commentators alike have floated explanations for this phenomenon from the advent of social media to climate change and economic insecurity, but Gray and others believe the drop in play — and in other measures of freedom like walking to school and holding part-time jobs — could be to blame. “What children need is freedom to be children,” Gray said, “to play and explore and interact with other kids.”
Adults can give kids back their playtime, but it will take work
Reintroducing unstructured play into children’s lives, however, is easier said than done. Just sending kids out to play until the streetlights come on is no longer a social norm. Families can face anything from social opprobrium to prosecution for letting kids play unsupervised, and the consequences are especially severe for parents of color and low-income parents, who are already subject to a disproportionate degree of surveillance around their childrearing choices.
Moreover, the events of the last few years, from the pandemic to wildfires to formula shortages and more, have contributed to a climate of intense anxiety among today’s parents — many of whom grew up in the milk-carton era and were anxious children and teenagers themselves. “Anxiety seeks certainty,” Lyons said. “The more that we restrict, the more that we don’t let our kids move into the world, the better we feel in terms of our own anxiety.”
However, there are ways parents can give their kids more freedom, even in a society that doesn’t make it easy. It starts with adults recognizing and coping with their anxieties, as much as they can. “I encourage parents to do their own work, engage in their own counseling to unpack whatever concerns that they might have, whatever fears that they’re holding on to,” Joe said. In addition to working with a therapist, if possible, it’s helpful to reach out to other parents for support and commiseration. “Then parents themselves feel less isolated with their concerns,” Joe said.
Parents can also take steps to avoid passing their anxieties to their children. They can limit what Lyons calls “safety chatter”: “the constant stream of be careful, get down, watch out” that can serve as the soundtrack to a playground trip or scooter ride. They can also work on letting kids take reasonable risks, whether that’s climbing a tree or just stepping into a situation that might be a bit uncomfortable at first. “We want kids to be pushed a little bit,” Lyons said. “We want to offer them things that feel challenging.”
Grown-ups can also resist the pull of tracking apps and other technologies that let parents keep tabs on kids at all times. “I work with parents that have baby monitors in their kids’ bedrooms, and their kids are 12 years old,” Lyons said. “We’ve got this idea right now that the closer we keep our kids, the more information we have, the more we direct, the more that we control, the better off our kids will be. And the research is showing the opposite.”
Parents can also band together to make their neighborhoods more hospitable for children’s play. One strategy would be for neighboring parents to agree to send their kids outdoors at certain times of the week, with one adult on hand just for safety, Gray said.
But it can’t be just on individual parents to reverse a trend that took a whole society to create — especially since not all families have access to outdoor space, trees to climb, or affordable therapy options. Schools, too, can encourage freedom and exploration for kids by bringing back recess in places where it’s been curtailed, Gray said. Districts in Connecticut, New York, and elsewhere have also adopted what they call play clubs, an hour before or after school in which kids of all ages play together with minimal interference from teachers and “no rules except don’t hurt anybody,” Gray said. “Schools can play a big role, if schools can see themselves as places for play.”
Colorado, Nevada, and other states have also passed reasonable independence laws, spearheaded by Let Grow, a nonprofit co-founded by Gray. The laws protect parents from being prosecuted for letting their children do unsupervised activities like walking to school or playing outside.
If giving kids and parents more freedom is one side of the solution, though, another side is making society as a whole safer for kids to roam free. While stranger kidnappings may not be a common danger for kids, others, like shootings, car crashes, and family violence, all deserve attention, Renfro said. “If we’re serious about protecting kids, these are all matters that need to be discussed rather than shrugged away or ignored in favor of more sensational or salacious issues.”
Dismantling systemic racism in law enforcement, schools, and everywhere it exists is also an inextricable part of the conversation around children’s autonomy, Joe said. As long as Black parents have to worry about their children being harmed while playing in a park or walking home, “then Black families are still going to have the challenge of trying to encourage their children to be autonomous and independent within a context that’s not always so safe for them.”
White Americans also need to address the racist biases within themselves and their families that lead to Black children being perceived as less innocent or more adult than their age, and their play or simple existence being perceived as threatening. “As a Black parent who’s raising a child in a predominantly white community, I really need white folks to check their misunderstanding and adultification of Black children,” Brown, the Parenting for Liberation founder, said. “For me, it’s about, how do we think about the responsibility as a collective and not put the onus only on Black people to make sure that Black children are safe?”
Finally, there are ways of thinking about kids’ independence and autonomy within a larger context of their connections with others. “Whereas we often prioritize this kind of individualistic development where I take on the world,” Joe said, “that’s not what’s valued for many people in many communities.”
Indeed, a more collectivist approach, one embraced by many cultures both within the US and around the world, teaches children that “your existence in the world is intricately connected to other people,” Joe said. “That allows for the development of empathy, because we recognize we’re not out there living on our own.”
A collectivist view of children’s play might acknowledge that we all have a role in creating communities that are not just safe but joyful, that provide children with opportunities to grow and explore without fear. Most communities in the US don’t look like that right now, but Gray and others believe they can be built, if we have the will and the wherewithal to build them.