What Kids Are Desperate For — And Not Getting

We try to give kids the best of everything, but we're missing something big.

What are kids today desperate for? The graph says it all:

It’s from an elementary school in a middle class neighborhood that offers all sorts of afterschool activities — music, theater, sports, even science. The school sent home a form asking kids which “club” they would most like to join this fall.

That big green wedge on the left says it all.

The club kids want most is the one that’s not much of a club at all. It’s the one that lets them enjoy plain old play time.

The easiest way to learn the hardest things.

The Let Grow Play Club, which this school offers, is an hour or two after school when kids get to just connect and play with other kids. There are balls, chalk, swings — nothing fancy. And there’s an adult present, like a lifeguard, for emergencies. But the adult doesn’t organize the games, doesn’t solve the arguments, or even make helpful suggestions.

Why not?

Because play time is that important.

Throughout history, and pre-history, the young of the species have always played in mixed-age groups, on their own, as nature programmed them to. It’s hard to learn how to get along, empathize, communicate, create, compromise. So Mother Nature programmed kids to be desperate to play. If you’re a kid and you really want to have fun — the goal — you will go through a lot of growth and difficulty to get to that point. That includes coming up with something to do, organizing fair-enough teams, sharing the chalk, complimenting, planning, helping, arguing, compromising. Those are just a few of the things you learn to do, through lots and lots of practice, as you “work” to have fun.

Play is like air: Invisible. Crucial.

Kids need to play as much as they need to eat and sleep and breathe. But it’s the one building block of childhood we have taken away. Accidentally! With the best of intentions! We love our kids so much that instead of giving them “just” play time, we offer enrichment: music, theater, sports, games, even science.

All of which are great! It’s just that in play, the kids are learning things that can’t be directly taught in a class. Like how to make a friend.

In America today, kids get an average of 4-7 minutes of unsupervised, unstructured play time outside.

That’s like giving kids two cashews a day to live on.

Adults can’t teach kids everything they need to learn.

Instinctively, as the graph makes so painfully clear, our children KNOW what they are missing and are BEGGING us to give it to them. An hour or two after school (or before!) when no one is telling them what to do, so they learn to take charge. When they discover what they love to spend their time on, so their curiosity is engaged. When they meet kids in different grades, so school becomes a cornucopia of connection. And when they get to choose what they want to do, and get good at it. That way, even a child who is failing in class feels competent and is SEEN as competent by the others they spend their day with.

It’s really hard for us adults to understand that kids could get as much — or MORE — out of some time just interacting with each other as they could get from us giving them some new, cool information or skills.

But there’s a reason so many kids checked off “Play” on their after-school activity forms.

They know they aren’t getting enough. And they’re desperate.

A Let Grow Play Club in South Carolina.

Request your free Play Club Guides for schools and parents here.