Blue Half Circle
Yellow Star
Blue Half Circle Right
Left Half Circle
Yellow Half Circle
Blue Half Circle
Yellow Stars

The Problem with Playing

By on

Read Time: 3 minutes

The Surgeon General is right: Loneliness is a massive problem. It’s not just sad, it’s unhealthy. So let’s look at the quickest, easiest way to solve it, at least among kids.

Get them playing. Like, really playing — organizing games, working through arguments, sometimes yelling, sometimes laughing — without an adult fast-forwarding through all of that.

Playing is the most organic way to make a friend. As our co-founder Peter Gray points out: Almost by definition, when you’re a kid: a friend is someone you play with.

The marketing problem.

But since play has been pretty much replaced by adult-run activities (and homework), we need to literally create a play sanctuary — a time and place where kids of all ages are guaranteed a chance to JUST PLAY. Otherwise it won’t happen. It’s like the way housing developments encroach on the local woods — pretty soon there’s no woods left. The housing developments have money behind them. The trees are just trees.

Similarly, most kid programs have someone running them, so they represent someone’s salary and perhaps even a business. That someone, or business, naturally must market their program. So they do. “This will make your kid smart! Or talented! Or scholarship-eligible! Or school-ready!”

The problem with playing is that free play is too free for its own survival.

Solution: A “child-life” preserve.

So: Just as we have “wildlife preserves,” where those in power guarantee that something ancient and precious will not be destroyed, we also need to guarantee kids a “child-life preserve.” That is, guarantee a time and place when children, no less than gazelles and hippos, can play as — dare we say it? — nature intended. Because when you’re playing, you’re developing all the skills (compromise, communication, “reading” people, getting buy-in, empathy, creativity) that you need to become a successful human. A less-likely-to-be-lonely human.

And the byproduct of all that playing is…fun. Fun arises from playing.

The secret sauce is fun.

But fun isn’t what play is really about, developmentally. The pursuit of fun is just what gets kids going. It’s because play is fun that kids are willing to do all the hard stuff of regulating themselves, planning, rule-making, and frustration-tolerating to get to the point where the fun finally happens. Fun is the spoonful of sugar. The “medicine” going down is all the lessons in socialization. It’s all the self-control and resourcefulness it takes to make something fun happen…unless an adult is organizing it FOR the kids.

At which point, it’s just the sugar.

So what we need is a place where kids can pursue fun and make it happen without adults stepping in. When adults take charge, they skip over the hard, annoying stuff — the squabbling and compromising that the kids would otherwise have to do. That means the kids don’t get as much chance to practice the skills of getting along. The road ahead is bumpier.

Give kids back free play.

In short: To raise a generation of happy, healthy kids, we can’t keep denying them the chance to make their own fun. Free play is the greatest engine for health, joy, connection, and learning. That’s why all animals do it.

Except, increasingly, us.

Lonely, sad us.

How can you create a “child-life sanctuary” full of play?

If you’re lucky, you live in a place where you can get your neighbors to agree to send their kids out to have fun together. Maybe each afternoon one parent takes a turn sitting outside, like a lifeguard.

If that’s not happening, you might see if your school would consider starting a Let Grow Play Club in the fall, or during its summer program (it’s never too late!). Here’s our FREE implementation guide for schools.

Free play may be too free for its own good. But it’s also priceless.


  1. AAnirudh Silai says:

    A “child-life preserve” – you mean a park? Maybe we need to invest more in those!

  2. CCary says:

    It’s not “free play” if there’s an adult watching “like a lifeguard”. We need to go back to “I’m goin’ out to play, Mom!”/”Okay, be home before dark!” Kids need lots of time outside, roaming beyond their own yard, with zero adult surveillance. It worked for millennia.

  3. MMark says:

    I, the SG too, fear many adults are increasingly lonely. Perhaps one phenomenon in no small part driving helicoptering, IMO bad boundaries. Adults looking to kids to provide satisfaction in adults’ lives.

    I also benefitted from responsibilities working on my own, working with other kids. The latter usually w/ some supervision. But also where we learned to lead, to cooperate, to organize. I have many fond memories of such “work”, including pride, FUN in teamwork at McDonald’s, in Town Park upkeep, in Scouting projects, in preparing for Court with other trial lawyers, paralegals. I was most fortunate to work with people who expected work to be fun; who made work fun, who duly delegated as appropriate, as we learned. Key was taking pride in what we did, respect in who we played, worked with. Ironic that when growing up, I often heard ludicrous stuff like only humans played. This simply untrue. Bogus claims.

  4. MMark says:

    As usual, I agree fervently, urgently with most of the keen insights. Especially that people running programs are typically geared to market what they provide. I saw this, unhappily, when I was a boy some 50 years ago. And as an adult. Guidance counsellors in schools, for example, tend to do things to increase demand, power for guidance counsellors. Gives me pause about their increasing diagnoses of this and that. And doctrines, often rigid.