Skip to main content

It’s summer vacation, but you might not know it from the absence of children on streets and sidewalks, in parks and public spaces. Just as afternoons and weekends during the school year are more void of children than ever before, so too is summertime.

Where are all of these young ones? Increasingly, they are contained in structured, adult-led, often indoor activities where they are told what to do, what to think, and how to act. Those play-filled afternoons with the neighborhood kids we remember from childhood? Gone. Those long summer days outside with friends, roaming in woods or water? A quaint memory. Today, for many children, nearly every waking hour of their day is orchestrated by someone else.

Free, unstructured, unsupervised childhood play in our public spaces is an artifact of a by-gone era. As Jay Griffiths writes in her eloquent book, A Country Called Childhood: "How has childhood become so unnatural? Why does the dominant culture treat young humans in ways which would be illegal if applied to young dogs? Born to burrow and nest in nature, children are now exiled from it. They are enclosed indoors, caged and shut out of the green and vivid world, in ways unthinkable a generation ago."

Quiet neighborhoods aren’t the only consequence of this trend away from natural childhood play. Mounting evidence reveals a rise in childhood mental health issues as children’s play declines.

In his 2011 article for the American Journal of Play, Boston College psychology professor, Dr. Peter Gray, argues for a causal link between the systematic decline in play and the corresponding rise in childhood anxiety, depression, feelings of helplessness, narcissism, and other mental illness indicators.

Gray writes: “Today, in many neighborhoods, it is hard to find groups of children outdoors at all, and, if you do find them, they are likely to be wearing uniforms and following the directions of coaches while their parents dutifully watch and cheer.”

Scroll to Continue

Recommended for You

Other researchers have found similar disturbing trends regarding play-deprivation. In her book, Balanced and Barefoot, pediatric occupational therapist, Angela Hanscom, describes the importance of free play and its healthy impact on emotional development.

She writes about children growing up today: “We are keeping them from attaining the very sensory input they need in order to grow into resilient and able-bodied people. They need to climb, jump, run through the woods, pick up sticks, jump in mud puddles, and fall and get hurt on occasion. These are all natural and necessary experiences that will help develop a healthy sensory system–foundational to learning and accomplishing many of life’s goals.”

We need to reclaim an unenclosed, play-filled childhood for our children. We need to welcome them back into our public spaces—into our neighborhoods and parks and sidewalks—and grant children the freedom to grow outside of fences, both physical and metaphorical. We need to replace the silence with the familiar sounds of childhood—for their sake and for ours.

This article was originally published on Intellectual Takeout.



Kerry McDonald is a Senior Contributor for Intellectual Takeout. She has a B.A. in economics from Bowdoin College and a Master’s degree in education policy from Harvard University. Follow her on Twitter.



How Children Are Missing Life’s Meaning

Is there something about the quiet, relaxed beauty of the outdoors that does something to refresh not only our bodies, but our souls as well?


Why Free Play is Disappearing in our Culture

Despite these benefits, natural, free play—the kind most of us had as kids—is rapidly disappearing

mess in child's room

Toys Could Be One of Your Best Parenting Decisions

Understanding the effects that toys have on your child’s development is extremely beneficial since you’ll be able to understand how your child, as an individual, understands the world around them as well as the best kind of toys that will benefit them the most.

skip it toys

Are Toys All You Need to Make a Childhood Awesome?

"If you remember this, then your childhood was awesome." How toys shouldn't be what we focus on when we talk about our childhoods.

Get Outside

Science Says 15 Minutes Can Fix This Common Disorder

The term itself may seem a little hokey, and is not actually medically diagnosed, but the data is there to back it up.

Raising Kids That Other People Like To Be Around

5 Steps for Raising Children That Other People Like to Be Around

Your children are passengers in your cab. Your life experience is your qualification.


Childhood, No Return

His mom set up an account for him with strict parental controls, but Noah somehow forgot the password. He made a new account instead. No parental controls. He’s been meaning to tell his mom.