The Power of Play, Part 2

Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash
Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash

One reason why is that parents are struggling to overcome their fears. Child safety is foremost in our minds, and mostly with good reason. Many neighborhoods are unsafe. But even in secure areas, few kids are permitted to wander, and typically the kid who walks around the neighborhood is unlikely to find anyone else to play with anyway. The very fact that a Mike Lanza exists—someone who has created a micro-milieu in which his kids and all the children in his immediate neighborhood can gather the way we all did every day as kid—is emblematic of how radically things have changed, and most would agree this change has not been for the best. It’s almost unbelievable that a dad who wanted his kids to experience self-directed fun could be such an outlier.

What does it say about our society that a father was compelled to write a book that could serve as a blueprint for parents in neighborhoods across the country who want to create conditions in which kids can have healthy fun as we did naturally twenty or thirty years ago? Lanza is an inspiration to us all, and a growing number of parents feel that he’s absolutely right. We need to bring back free play, in a big way. It’s critical to our children’s individual and collective well-being. Unstructured and semi-structured play, whether sports based or not, are essential pathways through which our kids achieve social, emotional, and cognitive development. Games like tag, four-square, and capture the flag, to name just a few, are much more than simple childhood activities. These are pivotal experiences in childhood development. Socially, we are talking about improvements in your child’s problem-solving, flexibility, and conflict-management skills. Emotionally, the benefits include “self-concept,” or the strengthening of self-image, as well as moral reasoning and the ability to take perspective (see the bigger picture in a situation). Cognitively, kids develop creativity and spatial reasoning through such activities.

So why are we, as a society, so hell-bent on structuring so many of our children’s waking non-school hours (if we have the time and can afford to)? Much of the anxiety that drives society’s unwavering preoccupation with results (winning at all costs) in youth sports springs from a perfectly healthy and natural desire to see our children succeed in sports and in life. We hustle and bustle about, trying to create perfect—or near perfect—conditions that can help catapult our children into the promised land: a good college, an invigorating career, monetary success, lifelong comfort. Even before their child turns five or six, some parents max out their credit cards, placing Sarah on soccer teams, in music camps, in art programs, and everything else they can rationalize as the must-have footholds of her developmental climb to the rarefied heights of super achievement.

We tend to do all these things because we want to provide our kids with the best possible tool kit for accomplishment, a grab bag of skill sets they can utilize to get ahead. Any advantage, of any kind, will do. The stark reality is that our kids have to be prepared to reinvent themselves often, and on the fly, to jump-start entrepreneurial ventures when jobs with established companies are scarce. Because, let’s face it, it’s not getting any easier out there. The middle class is shrinking; the job market is ever more fickle. Corporations have long since jettisoned their paternalistic ways. Generous medical, dental, and pension plans are nostalgic memories, except in the corner offices of the tallest edifices.

Back in 2006, the United States Department of Labor reported that your son or daughter would likely remain at a particular job—on average—for two to three years, tops, and that figure continues to shrink. As Noel Wagner, director of talent acquisition at the Achilles Group, wrote in 2012, “People used to stay with their companies until retirement.” Ten years ago, she adds, it was typical to see people staying in their jobs for five to ten years. Then the average tenure dropped to three years. “Now we’re seeing that 18 months is normal.”

The bottom line: Your child is going to have to be quick on his feet and know how to adapt. That’s why we spend so much family time and resources building a platform of opportunities for our children, right? Team sports, lessons, extra tutorials.

What’s counterintuitive about all this, and quite shocking, is that this investment may be misplaced or misguided. Or at the very least, ill-timed. As Carol Dweck acknowledges, “No parent thinks, ‘I wonder what I can do today to undermine my children, subvert their effort, turn them off learning, and limit their achievement.’ Of course not. They think, ‘I would do anything, give anything, to make my children successful.’ Yet many of the things parents do boomerang. Their helpful judgments, their lessons, their motivating techniques often send the wrong message.”

Perhaps we should hit the pause button and ask ourselves, what is the return on investment (ROI) here? Why—if we want our kids to get ahead, and stay ahead—do Jenny Levy, Professor Parker, and Dr. Dreck have to unteach much of what we’ve spent good money on to have programmed into our kids’ brains from the start? Could we be approaching education from the wrong angle? Is this platform of opportunities we work so hard to set up built on shaky foundations?

One of the most dynamic buzzwords in the halls of corporate America these days is executive function. Many of the top companies want their new hires to score high on the EF scale. Yet executive functioning is not a skill set one develops in the myriad hyperorganized, adult-led extracurricular activities we funnel our children into for so many hours after school. Executive functioning is developed most effectively in the context of imaginative, unstructured free play. Erika Christakis, MEd, MPH, an early childhood teacher and former preschool director, and her husband, Nicholas Christakis, MD, PhD, a professor of medicine and sociology at Harvard University,

have witnessed up close the executive functioning deficiency of today’s college students while serving as masters of Pforzheimer House, a Harvard undergraduate residential house. In a December 2010 article they wrote, “Every day where we work, we see our young students struggling with the transition from home to school. They’re all wonderful kids, but some can’t share easily or listen in a group. Some have impulse control problems and have trouble keeping their hands to themselves; others don’t always see that actions have consequences; a few suffer terribly from separation anxiety. We’re not talking about preschool children. These are Harvard undergraduates whom we teach and advise. they all know how to work, but some of them haven’t learned how to play.” Their observations are buttressed by a 2006 study from the American Academy of Pediatrics that points out that free and unstructured play “is healthy and—in fact—essential for helping children reach important social, emotional, and cognitive developmental milestones as well as helping them manage stress and become resilient.”

Early childhood teachers, developmental psychologists, and neuroscientists have been saying this for decades, but it bears repeating: “One of the best predictors of school success is the ability to control impulses,” Team Christakis writes. “Children who can control their impulse to be the center of the universe, and—relatedly—who can assume the perspective of another person, are better equipped to learn.” That’s why free play is so important. It’s a world in which children witness and learn about each other’s emotions and develop collaborative skills. When children play imaginatively, they develop empathy and self-regulatory abilities.

Playborhood author Mike Lanza turned the front and backyards of his Menlo Park, California, home into an oasis for play. The ideology that motivated his efforts to transform his neighborhood is one we can all aspire to.


I want my kids to play outside with other neighborhood kids every day.

I want them to create their own games and rules.

I want them to play big, complex games with large groups of kids, and simpler games one-on-one with a best friend.

I want them to decide for themselves what to play, where, and with whom.

I want them to settle their own disputes with their friends.

I want them to create their own private clubs with secret rules.

I want them to make lasting physical artifacts that show the world that this is their place.

I want them to laugh and run and think.

Inspired by Lanza’s example, parents from around the country have taken up the torch. “The key is to create a sense of community among parents and kids,” says Lanza. “When people get to know each other better, they look out for each other’s kids, and everyone feels safer. And that’s a stepping stone to kids playing together more and becoming more independent themselves.”

In this chapter we explore the importance of play and games, and take a look at how sports and athletic development intersect with free play and can be enhanced by a healthy dose of unstructured play, before and during a child’s active participation in organized sports. ♦

From Kim John Payne, Luis Fernando Llosa, & Scott Lancaster. Beyond Winnning: Smart Parenting in a Toxic Sports Environment (Lyons Press, Connecticut, 2013)

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