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Play Is Everything

Take a look outside… how many kids do you see playing, unconstrained, using their imaginations and their physical bodies? In our busy, high-tech world, kids just aren’t going outside and being independent anymore. Why?

The reasons, like white cells found in that febrile nursing home patient’s UA, are TNTC (Too Numerous To Count). A culture of safety is taken to extremes, and parents feel the need to supervise everything (despite living in the safest times in history). College prep is starting earlier and kids are hyperscheduled with activities designed to impress no one but college admission officers. Free play is increasingly seen as a waste of valuable time for your future little investment banker.

But data show that free play has a myriad of advantages for growing minds: it builds executive function and creative thinking, enhances problem-solving skills, and requires kids to share ideas and express feelings while negotiating and reaching compromises (not to mention the countless emotional and physical benefits as well).

Are We Over-Parenting Our Kids?

Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind warns of the rise of fearful parenting, the decline of unsupervised, child-directed play, and the new world of social media that has engulfed teenagers in the last decade. 

Suicide, depression, and anxiety rates are skyrocketing in the generation born after 1994. Does this have something to do with the lack of play and helicopter parenting? 

Does Social Class Matter?

American parents pretty much all want the same thing for their kids: they should be healthy and happy, honest and ethical, caring and compassionate. But the affluent and the working poor take different approaches…

Middle-class and higher-income parents see their children as projects in need of careful cultivation. They try to develop their skills through close supervision and organized activities. Their kids are encouraged to question authority figures and navigate elite institutions and their associated bureaucracies.

Working-class parents believe their children will naturally thrive, and give them far greater independence and time for free play. They are taught to be compliant and deferential to adults.

Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages, and as always…it’s complicated.

So What Can You Do?

Let your kids be kids (at least occasionally!) and let them go outside and use their imaginations in an unstructured way. Give them some independent time without you. Trust me, they’ll be okay.

You can check out the original video here on Facebook and share it with your friends and family. We owe it to our future generations to let them play. Don’t have time to watch the video? You can listen to the free podcast versions on iTunes and Soundcloud.

Full Transcript Below!

– Hey there Z-Pac, it’s your boy ZDoggMD. I’m fresh off the NASCAR circuit and I’m doing this press conference today, ’cause I wanna talk about the importance to our children, of play. Play is crucial.

Am I on fire? Tom Hinueber, I feel like I’m on fire!

I’m gonna stop talking like that right now, but I’m not gonna stop having a damn good time pretending to be a race car driver. ‘Cause what I wanna talk about today, Z-Pac, is our children and are we over-parenting them? Are we not letting them be kids and as a result, they’re growing up to be whiny little punk asses. And I suspect that this may be the case, based on the literature that is emerging so far.

Which is that over-parenting, over-structuring our kids’ lives, the reduction in free play, meaning voluntary, unstructured play, where kids go outside, use their imagination, get physical, learn to deal with other kids, socialize, and become adults that way sooner. That has been disappearing, for a variety of reasons.

First of all, the college admissions process has gotten so insane that parents feel like in order to actually have their kids have any shot of making money in the future, they have to get into an ivy league school or some nice college. And to do that, they gotta click, click, click, click, click, all these extracurriculars and different boxes and things like that. Which gives you a grand total of zero time to go outside and be like, vroom, I’m going fast, just have fun.

It turns out, humans may be wired in their original, sort of, brain out of the box, when you’re born, for play. Play is found in all mammals, it’s crucial to the development of the normal neuro-circuitry and the normal social wiring that we have as humans. And are we taking that play away?

Well a lot of people are saying yes, and these people are relatively smart like Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist, in his book, The Coddling of the American Mind. Part of the problem with sucking away play, is we’re replacing it with this very structured life. So you’re doing violin lessons and you’re going to soccer practice and then you’re gonna do a couple hours in a soup kitchen because you wanna click that extracurricular box. And this doesn’t come from a place of true passion and joy for the kids. It comes from a place of, I need to click these boxes in order to get into the college so that I can become a functioning adult.

But what we’re seeing in outcomes is that this next generation, the iGen, so called iGen, born 1995 and later, is actually doing worse. They’re more anxious, they’re more depressed, they’re about three years delayed from previous generations, in terms of going out and doing risk-taking behaviors and basically becoming an adult. So sure, yeah, they’re drinking later and they’re having sex later, they’re not doing those things, ’cause they’re not going outside. Some degree of normal risk-taking is part of the resiliency of children to actually grow up.

Children are what Nassim Taleb calls anti-fragile. They actually benefit from some risk and some adversity and some challenge. But as our world has gotten safer, actually, so children are much less likely to die from a traumatic cause now, than they were 30 years ago, there’s a component of shame, well now we have to keep our children safe all the time. And if you failed, if your child gets in an accident or ends up in the ER, you’re a bad parent.

Whereas in the old days, when we were raised, it was just like, hey, sit in the back of the car with no seat belts, go walk. If you look at actually what happened to kids, from kindergarten admission requirements in 1979, which Jonathan puts in his book, to currently. In 1979, there were 10 things on the checklist. And there were things like… And it was not kindergarten, it was first grade.

Is your first grader able to explain to a police officer how to get to your house? In other words, how to find your home. Which implies that you know directions, that you go out on your own, that you’re able to figure things out. Is your child able to go to the grocery store, purchase some items, and come back by themselves? This is a first grader, this was 1979.

So a lot of these were practical tips to keep children out in the world, taking some degree of risk, and succeeding. Now, there are 30 things on the list and almost all of them are academic. Can the child count to 100 in tens, form three to five sentence words, do these kind of things? And that may be great, maybe we want really smart kids, but in the absence of resiliency, it doesn’t help.

Give me this shit. Okay, now I can really tell you what I think. Which is, lower income parents, all right, they have a style of learning which is like let the child do their thing with some discipline and parameters. Whereas upper income parents, tend to have a curated growth thing, where they’re always involved in the kids’ stuff, they’re scheduling all the activities, et cetera.

It turns out, those lower income people may have it right, to some degree, however, the problem is, lower income children are more likely to suffer serious adversity. And I’m talking about chronic adversity. Abuse, violence, poverty, hunger, without the support of a parental figure. So the parents are either working or it’s a single parent or there’s neglect and abuse. And that leads to adverse childhood experiences, which leads to horrible outcomes as adults, in terms of chronic disease, substance abuse, et cetera. So obviously this is all on a spectrum.

So what’s the right answer for our kids? This is my take and what I’m gonna do with my own kids. A little more unstructured free play time, a little more responsibility, a little more independence. Oh, it’s terrifying to let them go out biking in the neighborhood by themselves, without a parent watching the whole time. No, it’s not! There were generations of humans that have done this. Okay, and they turned out reasonably decent, although, I am one of them and I am wearing a fake NASCAR outfit with my own name and logo embroidered on it. So maybe take what I say with a grain of salt.

But a little more play goes a long way to making our children resourceful, resilient, and successful and less anxious, less depressed. That’s what I think and I’m sticking to it Tom Hinueber. Am I on fire Tom Hinueber? Am I on fire Tom Hinueber? I don’t know what to do with my hands. Oprah! Oprah help me! Anyways, the car was going real good in turn three and I just felt like I was floating on a cloud and that car just flying through the air. Hey y’all, I may be a Stanford-trained internal medicine doc, ZDoggMD and I take stuff real serious, but I’m also a cowboy spaceman race car driver. Vroom. Yeehaw!