Children’s Play in Violent Time

Originally published on June 14, 2023 by the Provincetown Independent


Children’s Play in Violent Times

It’s not a stretch to connect the loss of play with the rise in mass shootings

With more than one mass shooting per day since the start of 2023, many of us are asking what causes this extreme violence, most of it perpetrated by young people. Some of the causes seem easy to pinpoint: the prevalence of guns, access to assault weapons, economic inequality and the family stress it creates, violence in the media, first-person shooter video games, the declining mental health of our youth. But there is another factor that is rarely if ever mentioned: the stark decrease over the last five decades in children’s play.

Children today play far less both inside and outside of school than kids did even a generation ago. For the last 20 years, misguided education policies have ignored decades of research and theory in child development that show the value and necessity of play. They have promoted teacher-directed skill learning at the expense of play-based learning and time for unstructured play. This has happened even in preschools.

Play has disappeared from most kindergartens, replaced by a too-early emphasis on academics. But research shows that the narrow skills (e.g., naming letters, letter sounds, numbers) that are now drilled into children in preschool and kindergarten and appear as gains at the end of those school years fade by third grade. That’s because the foundational skills for long-term success in school depend on deeper capacities like problem solving, curiosity, emotional regulation, imagination, and cooperation — all of which are learned through play and not by memorizing discrete facts.

Outside of school, free play in children’s lives has also starkly diminished, replaced by structured activities and hours spent on screens. The average two- to four-year-old spends 2 to 2.5 hours a day onscreen; for five- and six-year-olds, it’s 3 hours a day.

Play is essential for healthy development. No one has to teach children to play; it’s a driving force in humans (and other mammals). Self-directed play develops resilience and coping skills. As kids invent stories in play, they incorporate experiences that they need to understand. They reenact confusing and fearful events, and they gain a sense of mastery and security as they play. When allowed to, children will play this way continuously. They’ll use their imaginations to make sense of all kinds of experiences. I’ve seen kids use play to cope with separation anxiety, the arrival of a new sibling, parents’ divorce, violence in the neighborhood, international terrorism, and war.

Children today are losing the chance to make sense of these traumas through play, and this is profoundly affecting their mental health. Research shows a correlation between the loss of play and a decline in children’s and adolescents’ mental health. Multiple studies show an increase in anxiety, depression, and feelings of helplessness in young people that mirrors the decline in play. In the U.S., the suicide rate for children ages 15 to 18 has doubled over the last 50 years; it has quadrupled for kids under age 15 over the same period.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to connect the decline in play and mental health to the rise in mass shootings. This connection was identified as early as 1966 when a gunman climbed a tower at the University of Texas and shot 46 people. A panel created to study the root causes of extreme violence found that murderers had two experiences in common: they were from abusive families, and they never learned to play as children. Other studies since then, one as recent as March 2023 published by Florida Atlantic University, have attributed the rise in mental health disorders in children and teens to a decades-long decline in play. It’s a small logical step to the conclusion that, while multiple factors contribute to violence, some of the youth using guns against others were play-deprived as children.

Restoring children’s free play is an essential part of what should be a broad approach to preventing mass shootings. Curbing access to guns, especially military-style assault weapons, is the immediate first step. But we must also address the underlying societal conditions that are at the root of our nation’s violence.

Nancy Carlsson-Paige is professor emerita at Lesley University, author of Taking Back Childhood, and cofounder of Defending the Early Years. She lives in Somerville and Truro.