Children don’t play as much as they used to: why you should worry about it


“I’m going down to play!” This is a phrase that many of us have often said during our childhood. Today, it is becoming rarer in the daily lives of families: according to some studies, children play less than before – an hour and a half a day – and they stop playing with classic toys earlier . From the age of 7-9, many prefer electronic devices to dolls, figurines, kites, toy cars…

The emergence of these devices, life in big cities where going outside is less independent and less safe, long school days followed by extracurricular activities are all factors that can explain this trend. But beyond the causes, what are the consequences?

Play to learn and grow

We have known for years the importance of play in the development of children and their learning. Some research from the United States warns of the link between decreased time spent in free play and increased anxiety and depression in children and youth.

The game is present in all cultures and at all times, as evidenced by the archaeological remains of certain toys . Human infants go through a stage of biological immaturity that makes them dependent on adults for survival, and at this stage they spend much of their time playing.

This immaturity allows them to benefit from play, through which they can rehearse behaviors, simulate situations, practice behaviors, learn to control their attention and their emotions, learn elements of the social context and gradually integrate into the adult world.

In summary, these children’s activities contribute positively to human development in all its dimensions:

  • on the physical level, through the stimulation of the evolution of the nervous system;
  • on the psychomotor level, by promoting; balance and muscle control.
  • cognitively, by developing thinking and creativity;
  • from the social point of view, by allowing contact with peers and learning the rules of behaviour.
  • from the affective and emotional point of view, through the search for pleasure, psychological balance or self-control.

Group games, active games, imagination games…

There is a multiplicity of human behaviors that are grouped under the term play, hence the complexity of the concept, the difficulty of defining and categorizing it.

Due to the diversity of approaches and conceptual frameworks from which research has been approached, it is not surprising to find that for every area of ​​child development there is some form of play.

However, they are generally classified into five main types: physical activity, play with objects, symbolic play, imitation and imagination play, and rule-based play.

Physical activity includes active play with activities such as jumping, climbing, playing ball, etc., which begin to develop from the second year of life, as well as fine motor activities such as cutting or coloring, and group play , typical of the preschool phase, which takes place with others and includes wrestling, kicking and fighting through which children learn to control their aggression. These games promote not only motor and sensory development, but also attachment skills and the understanding of emotional and social skills.

Play with objects begins in the first months, when babies are able to grasp and hold objects. They start rubbing objects, hitting them, knocking them down…until they are able to sort them, classify them, make constructions with them, etc. These are activities that serve as mechanisms for them to explore the world around them.

Symbolic play, which appears between the ages of 2 and 3, is centered on the use of symbolic systems such as language, reading, drawing or music and promotes the development of capacities for reflection on experiences, emotions, etc. .

The simulation game , in which objects are transformed to represent others (a broom represents a horse, a finger acts as a gun, etc.), appears around the age of 1 year and constitutes a means of developing abstract thinking . , which has implications for future cognitive, social, and academic skills.

Rules-based games range from outdoor games, such as hide-and-seek or sports activities, to board games or electronic games. These games develop understanding of the rules and aspects of social life such as taking turns, sharing or understanding others’ points of view.

Play, social activity and children’s rights

Over the past few decades, with the gradual integration of a large part of the population into cities, there has been a steady decline in face-to-face traditional and outdoor games, in favor of structured games, sports organized and extracurricular activities. As a result, some research suggests that children are playing less today than a few decades ago.

There is also an increase in technology-based games (video games, virtual and augmented reality). Curiously, despite their detractors, it has been observed that these games provide necessary skills that meet the characteristics of technological societies (agility in decision-making, problem solving, etc.)

In terms of implications for learning, play is an indispensable childhood activity that contributes positively and can be used as an educational tool by parents and teachers due to its motivating, fun and enjoyable nature.

In the same vein, game dynamics such as gamification are applied in educational contexts, with the aim of involving students in school tasks, involving them in learning processes and improving their performance .

Human adults still retain those behaviors that in other species only define infant limbs. Regardless of age, gambling plays an important role in people’s lives. For some it’s a way to train and practice new skills and behaviors in a safe environment, while for others it’s a way to foster social interaction and connection with others. In general, gambling can have a number of beneficial effects on mental and physical health, such as reducing stress, improving creativity, and problem solving.

In short, play is not just an activity for children, but can be an important part of life for people of all ages. The potentialities of play are the basis for the development of cognitive, socio-emotional and higher-order problem-solving abilities developed by human beings.

Play is necessary for the fulfillment of our human condition and is now rightly recognized by the United Nations not only as an opportunity but also as a right for children .

Author Bio: Angeles Conde Rodriguez is Professor of Evolutionary and Educational Psychology at the University of Vigo