Mariana Brussoni is Canada’s leading authority on why kids need free, unstructured time and how to make sure they get it. She is a developmental psychologist and professor of public health at the University of British Columbia.
Mariana, what exactly do you study?
I study children’s outdoor play. Elements of my work include injury prevention, risk-taking in outdoor play and caregivers’ perceptions of risks (what do they worry about, why, how does it influence their caregiving).
How do you define “free play”?
Play where a child is doing an activity that is freely chosen, personally directed, spontaneous, intrinsically motivated and fun.
Why is it important?
I’m much more interested in why outdoor play specifically is important and how it is different from indoor play. We only have to take ourselves back to our favorite childhood play memory to realize why it’s important.
I’ve asked people across the world to take themselves back to this memory and most people remember an activity outside, away from adults and with their friends, with limitless time and the ability to choose what they wanted to do. Many people also talk about being in forests, ditches, ravines or other places we wouldn’t necessarily consider play spaces. These spaces are important because they’re constantly changing so keep kids interests day after day.
As a professor who studies child development, what skills do you see outdoor play time giving kids?
If you think about what opportunities like these offer it includes:
- A sense of freedom (important for mental health)
- An opportunity to take risks (risk management skills, self-confidence, resilience)
- Being able to work out with friends what they want to do and how to resolve disagreements (important for social-emotional learning)
- Being able to run, jump, shout and move their body in ways they can’t inside (physical development and physical activity)
- Being able to plan what they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it (executive functioning skills that help direct attention, set and meet goals – really fundamental for success in life!)
- Being able to solve problems themselves (resilience, self-confidence)
- Being able to be in nature (emotional regulation, stress reduction)
What happens to kids if they don’t get much free play?
In the short term, they are more likely to feel stressed and depressed. In the longer term, it has impacts on their health and development (see above).
How do the effects of growing up without playing a lot resonate when kids become teenagers and adults?
My own work is more focused on risk taking and risky play and so I look at the effects of overprotection on kids. Interesting work is coming out showing that adults who were overprotected as children are more likely to have diagnosis of anxiety and depression. We’re missing the longitudinal studies to definitively prove the other links I’ve set above, but we would expect that a play deficit would influence their social-emotional learning, development, cognitive skills, and so on.
Can kids get some of the “free play benefits” when they’re playing online?
I frankly don’t know a lot about this. But I would return to my distinction between indoor and outdoor play and what you can do outdoors that you can’t do indoors.
What do you wish parents knew about play?
How important it is and how they need to make sure their child has the time, space and freedom to play how they choose to play. It doesn’t have to be hard or complicated.
What do you wish schools knew about it?
Supporting children’s high quality outdoor play opportunities is easy and pays off in huge dividends for not only the children’s academic achievement, but also their mental health, relationships with peers and teachers, and development.
Fortune 500 companies are waking up to the importance of play and realizing that play is the engine of optimal development. As they think about how the workforce is changing and what they’ll need from future workers, they realize it will be creativity and social-emotional skills. Play is fundamental to developing these.
Why did you decide to dig so deeply into play?
Because I see its importance and how it seems to be disappearing more and more from children’s lives. I want to bring it back for the children’s sake, but more fundamentally because society needs children to play.
Do you think free play making a comeback?
I think and hope so. I’ve seen some positive changes in many sectors that are moving in the right direction.
What are some tips for making it easier to get kids playing?
Giving kids time, space and freedom are the key ingredients.
Time can be making sure kids aren’t overscheduled and they don’t miss recess, and they put screens down.
Space ideally has different things for kids to do. Having loose parts is a great way to start. These include sticks, rocks, mud, crates, tarps, etc. Things that kids can move around and let their imagination shape the play.
The biggest barrier to freedom is adults not letting kids do what they want to do, being afraid, and assuming kids aren’t competent. So this requires us to work on ourselves and our attitudes so we can get out of the way and let kids play the way they choose.
Anything else you’d like us all to know?
One of the big barriers to outdoor play is caregivers’ fears that something awful is going to happen to their child. But the injury statistics show it’s never been a safer time for kids. The likelihood of a serious injury is really minor and the benefits of kids getting outside to play are so major!