Psychologist Peter Gray Says Decreased Playtime in Schools is Leading to Child Depression

Kids are inherently inclined to engage in play. Back in the 1950s when Peter Gray was a child, there was a cultural norm that allowed children to have ample time for unstructured play without adult supervision.

During that era, children were given the freedom to engage in activities like Double Dutch and Red Rover, fostering lasting memories for the Baby Boomer generation. This period marked a significant shift from the past when labor laws were enacted to protect children and define childhood as a period safeguarded from excessive work.

Reflecting on the current constraints on children’s autonomy, Peter Gray, a research psychologist at Boston College, asserts that we have regressed over the past few decades. He likens the current restrictions on children’s freedom to a form of imposed labor driven by the belief that it is beneficial for their development.

As a research psychologist at Boston College, Peter Gray has dedicated his career to exploring the impact of free, unstructured play on children. He has studied how structured activities overseen by adults, particularly within the school setting, have encroached on the time children spend in outdoor play, socializing, and creating their own games.

Through his research, Gray has identified the adverse effects of this shift on children’s development and well-being. In an analysis published in the Journal of Pediatrics last September, Gray and his colleagues highlighted how the reduction in children’s independent activities since the 1960s has led to decreased resilience and a surge in mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety.

Gray expounds on these findings in his regularly updated Substack, where he critiques various aspects that hinder play and happiness, ranging from organized sports to the dwindling free time during school lunch breaks.

Gray dismisses the theory that attributes mental health issues to excessive smartphone and social media use, arguing that the data supporting the negative effects of addictive technology are unconvincing.

According to Gray, the prevailing warnings about excessive screen time not only miss the mark but also divert attention from the deeper problem of how adults have reshaped the environment to restrict and regulate children’s activities.

Speaking in a conversation with The 74’s Kevin Mahnken, Gray emphasizes the unprecedented lack of freedom that children face today compared to historical norms. He underscores that children are naturally designed to grow up with independence, a facet that has been significantly restricted in recent decades.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

The 74: What is the relationship between unsupervised play and mental health, both in childhood and later life?

Peter Gray highlights the fundamental role of play in children’s mental health, noting that beyond immediate happiness, play contributes to the development of essential life skills, social interactions, problem-solving abilities, and resilience.

Moreover, Gray points to a correlation between the decline in children’s opportunities for unstructured play and the rise in anxiety, depression, and suicide rates among children and adolescents over recent decades.

What is the evidence that children’s play has declined in recent years? Is it clear in other countries as well as the United States?

The decline in children’s opportunities for free play is evident not only in the U.S. but also in various other countries. Sociologist Markella Rutherford’s analysis of articles from parenting magazines spanning the past century reveals a shift from promoting independence in children to heightened concerns about safety, resulting in a reduction in independent activities since the 1960s.

“Play makes children happy and resilient; we’ve been taking play away from children.”

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