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(Photo: Oliver Sved/Shutterstock)

The Value of Unstructured Play Time for Kids

• May 09, 2014 • 4:00 AM

(Photo: Oliver Sved/Shutterstock)

German psychologists find people who were allowed to play freely as children have greater social success as adults.

There has been plenty of hand-wringing in recent years about the “overscheduled child.” With after-school hours increasingly dominated by piano lessons, soccer practice, and countless other planned activities, many of us have a nagging sense that kids are missing out on something important if they have no time for unstructured play.

New research from Germany suggests these fears are justified. It finds people who recall having plenty of free time during childhood enjoy high levels of social success as adults.

A team of three psychologists from the University of Hildesheim, led by Werner Greve, conducted a survey of 134 people. Participants were presented with a list of seven statements and reported the degree to which they conformed with their own childhood experiences (that is, ages three to 10).

Free play allows children to develop the flexibility needed to adapt to changing circumstances and environments—an ability that comes in very handy when life becomes unpredictable as an adult.

The statements included, “Looking back, I tried many things and experimented a lot by myself”; “From time to time, I set out on my own or with friends to discover the neighborhood”; and “My parents always were in fear that something could happen to me, so they did not let me do many things by myself.”

They also expressed their level of agreement or disagreement with 10 statements designed to measure “social success.” These included “Friends come to me for advice”; “My work is appreciated by others”; and “If something goes wrong, I have friends by my side that support me.”

Additional tests measured their ability to be flexible in light of life’s setbacks, and their overall level of self-esteem.

The researchers found a significant positive correlation between ample time for free play during childhood and adult social success. Free time as kids was also linked with high self-esteem and the flexibility to adjust one’s goals.

While “it goes without saying that child play is not the sole, nor perhaps even the most important predictor of social success … the correlation we found in this study was surprisingly high,” the researchers write in the online journal Evolutionary Psychology.

Free play, they argue, allows children to develop the flexibility needed to adapt to changing circumstances and environments—an ability that comes in very handy when life becomes unpredictable as an adult.

So parents may want to make sure their kids have the time and freedom to play and explore at their own pace. Tutoring and mentoring can be terrific, but as this research reminds us, there are many types of learning experiences—and some of the least formal can pay off later in life.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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