“Play is a powerful way to impart social skills,” writes Peter Gray, an evolutionary psychologist who believes children’s lives have become ruinously regimented. Play also teaches children how to manage intense negative emotions, such as fear and anger, and to test themselves by taking manageable risks. Unstructured and unsupervised (oh, horrors!) play is crucial for their development.
“In play, children make their own decisions and solve their own problems,” Prof. Gray writes. “In adult-directed settings, children are weak and vulnerable. In play, they are strong and powerful. The play world is the child’s practice world for being an adult.”
Those kids playing shinny until dusk weren’t just wasting time. They were learning life lessons in problem-solving, negotiation and resilience. And they were better off without your help.
In hunter-gatherer societies, children play constantly until late adolescence. But today, as Prof. Whitebread observes, play has been almost squeezed out of their lives by a risk-averse society, by our separation from nature and by our widespread cultural assumption that “earlier is better.”