Parenting • Apr 15, 2011

Are we over-planning playtime?

     How old were you the first time your parents let you out of the house alone? Did you walk to school or play outside with the neighborhood kids?
     I remember walking to kindergarten by myself. That was in 1977. And sure, the kindergarten was just down the hill outside my back door. But as my 5-year-old prepares to start school in the fall, I must admit I’m not prepared to grant him the same independence. Not yet.
     Maybe that’s because his school isn’t quite as close as mine was. But I feel like we live in a different world today. An interesting article in USA Today talks about how today’s kids have less independence than they did decades ago. We spend so much time scheduling play dates and soccer games that our kids may be missing opportunities to explore their universe on their own terms.
     “Kids need time to just dig in the dirt, play with worms and climb trees,” says Gail Bennett, Infant-Child Specialist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital’s Child Development Center. “They’re making so many connections when they’re just exploring and feeling things with their hands and learning how to solve problems rather than having somebody telling them what to do.”
     Deciding when your child is ready to explore the neighborhood alone depends on a lot of things, including your neighborhood (do you have a fenced-in yard, a busy street, stray dogs?) as well as your child’s developmental level.
     “You give them slow responsibility and let them work up to it,” explains Margie Zitco, Preschool Specialist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital’s Child Development Center. “But it’s important for them to learn how to use their bodies – to climb trees or crawl in the dirt – things they’re not going to learn watching TV or playing on the computer.”
     What would you do? At what age is it appropriate to send the kids outside to play? Are we structuring too many of their activities at the expense of good old-fashioned free play?