THURSDAY, Sept. 22 (HealthDay News) -- From hide-and-seek to tearing around the neighborhood with friends, playing is one of the hallmarks of childhood. But in this era of hyper-vigilant parenting, researchers find that children in the United States have far less time to play than kids of 50 years ago, a trend that may have serious consequences for their development and mental health.
"Into the 1950s, children were free to play a good part of their childhood. If you stayed in your house around your mom, she'd say 'go out and play.' The natural place for a kid was outside," said Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology at Boston College.
"Today, it's quite the opposite. Parents are not allowing kids the freedom to play. And even if they do, there are no other kids out there to play with, or the mother may have such restrictions on the child, such as 'you can't go out of the yard' that the kids don't want to stay out there," added Gray.
When kids are allowed to play, they make up games, negotiate rules and make sure others are playing fair. All of that helps to teach children how to make decisions, to solve problems and gain self-control. Children who have too many emotional outbursts or who insist on getting their way too often quickly learn they need to change their behavior if they want to continue to be welcomed into the group, Gray said.
Through free play, "they are acquiring the basic competencies we ultimately need to become adults," said Gray, author of two studies published recently in the American Journal of Play.
But since the mid-1950s, adults have played an increasingly larger role in their children's activities, to the detriment of their kids' mental health, Gray said. And, playing organized sports with a coach or other adult directing the activity doesn't replace "free" play that's directed by kids, he noted.
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