choolers aged two to five spend an average of more than 32 hours in front of the TV screen each wee..." /> choolers aged two to five spend an average of more than 32 hours in front of the TV screen each wee..." />

Overstructured Lives: Why Play is Important for Children and Their Parents

Preschoolers aged two to five spend an average of more than 32 hours in front of the TV screen each week, according to Nielsen television ratings. A large percentage of them watch TV from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. (1)

Within the world of television programming for young children, two different views have emerged: curriculum vs. storytelling. External pressure stemming from policies like No Child Left Behind and societal conformity has created a plethora of PBS shows and other child-centered curriculum programming. These shows emphasize cognitive development, with a particular emphasis on math and science. Internal pressures felt by parents and both public and private educational systems often emphasize more academics and less play in the goal of raising children to be successful, functioning adults.

“Kids should be playing. Parents [might] consider play a waste of time, [but] forced learning and academics are not complementary to creativity,” said Robert Sternberg, Provost and Senior Vice President and professor of Psychology at Oklahoma State University. “Parents need to encourage their children to take sensible risks. They need to help their kids to realize that in life there are obstacles that can be overcome through playing and creating in fictional worlds and discovering how things could be.”

Play is good for children and their parents. Parents are often well-intentioned when they overschedule classes and events for their children, but at countless playgrounds, preschool activities, dance classes, sport events, and music recitals parents drive themselves into the ground in an effort get their children started at an early age (a group in Seattle offers soccer classes starting at 18 months). Once at an event parents often take out their cell phones, Blackberries, and smart phones and begin making one phone call after another while their children are engaged in a pre-determined schedule.

The result is an overstructured life, leaving little time for the kind of play that allows dreams and stories to emerge naturally and without effort. Where is the free time for the imagination? Time spent outdoors away from electronics is, for some, a carefully guarded secret.

Parents who feel the pressures of the current economic downturn may find work seeping into every nook and cranny of their lives, whether at home or a child’s sport event. A parent working late into the night often means an electronic substitute and no bedtime story. Technological innovations are here to stay and children’s activities —sports, dance, theater, music lessons—all have potential value.

But things are out of balance. Life is overscheduled; every minute is accounted for; busy is the buzz word of today’s parent and child.  More and more children are being medicated for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and bullying has increased on playgrounds. (2) In addition, youth are dropping out of the school system at alarming rates.

Children and their parents have little free time and play has become devalued.

Children and adults learn and create by playing. Finding ways to open free time for play is crucial if families hope to create balance in their lives, improve their health, and deepen relationships through intimacy. It is up to parents to question whether they and their children are “busy,” or if they are creating the life they want for themselves and their children.

Finding creative, imaginative activities and sharing dreams and stories with their children can help parents re-create play in their lives and deepen relationships with their children. Remembering how they liked to play as children can help parents bridge the gap they feel between themselves as a “serious adult” and a “playful adult.” Lessening time constraints can create a greater sense of ease by decreasing stress and enhancing the joy shared by all generations.


Works Cited

  1. Chozick, Amy. (November 5, 2010). The Turf War for Tots. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from
  2. Hammond, Darell. (October 26, 2010.) Is Bullying Getting Worse? Four Preventative Actions for Parents & Schools. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from

© Copyright 2010 by Mary Alice Long, PhD. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Jeni

    November 13th, 2010 at 6:26 AM

    Playing with your children is a valuabe bonding time that far too many parents ignore and fail to take advantage of.

  • Mary Alice Long, PhD

    November 13th, 2010 at 9:00 PM

    Absolutely Jeni. Thank you. Just returned home after presenting on Play for the Seattle Jung Society. So many avenues for play for everyone adult or child, parent or grandparent!

  • Louis R

    November 14th, 2010 at 1:27 PM

    A child not only has a good time playing but there are a lot of things a child will be picking up and learning even from a seemingly-useless game. And it would be great if more parents could actually play with their kids than to let them do things like watch TV or game on the computer so that they can have some free time.

  • Mary Alice Long, PhD

    November 18th, 2010 at 6:07 PM

    We all know that children learn through play. The same is true for adults! Parents who cultivate a playful attitude to life and play with their children enhance their lives through a deeper connection with Self and their kids. Just back from the World Creativity Forum I heard the phrase, “Play is the anti-room to the Imagination!

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