An Hour of Free Play Is Like a Drop of Water in the Desert

An hour of free play is like a drop of water in the desert.

According to the psychologist Peter Gray, children today are more depressed than they were during the Great Depression and more anxious than they were at the height of the Cold War. A 2019 study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found that between 2009 and 2017, rates of depression rose by more than 60 percent among those ages 14 to 17, and 47 percent among those ages 12 to 13. This isn’t just a matter of increased diagnoses. The number of children and teenagers who were seen in emergency rooms with suicidal thoughts or having attempted suicide doubled between 2007 and 2015.

Read a bunch of similar statistics in Kids These Days by Tristan Harris.

The author of the piece doesn't view the causes as quite the same as Harris does, but it is pretty close to what Kerry McDonald says in Unschooled1. Because of the break down in community and the communal structures of child care, we warehouse our children in daycare and afterschool programs. School is more tightly controlled and kids in general are scheduled to the hilt.

And so for many children, when the school day is over, it hardly matters; the hours outside school are more like school than ever. Children spend afternoons, weekends and summers in aftercare and camps while their parents work. The areas where children once congregated for unstructured, unsupervised play are now often off limits. And so those who can afford it drive their children from one structured activity to another. Those who can’t keep them inside. Free play and childhood independence have become relics, insurance risks, at times criminal offenses.

Unschooled would 100% agree with that statement and would also agree with the articles assertion that school doesn't really socialize kids much at all (except for rule following) because it's all controlled. Kids learn socialization when they work stuff out on their own without adults butting in.

I agree with all of this, which is why I'm the Dad at the park with a book sitting as far away from his kids as he can. When they come to me with a problem, the first question is ask is if anyone is bleeding, then I usually tell them to go figure it out.

I'd let them head to the park across the street on their own, if it wasn't for the adults that feel they can comment on the fact and talk about calling the police to pick up my kid because she's "too young" to go swing within sight of my kitchen2.


  1. We're going to see a review of Unschooled this week. ↩︎

  2. I find this whole thing particularly interesting as I grab more and more resources for a book one day about the break down in community. It seems that the days are gone when the whole block watched out for a kid. Instead, someone will call some government agency because you're not watching a kid who is playing on your driveway. ↩︎