The Decline of Free Play May Have Caused a Decline in Sense of Control and in Intrinsic Goals, and a Rise in Anxiety and Depression
Children’s freedom to play and explore on their own, independent of direct adult guidance and direction, has declined greatly in recent decades. Free play and exploration are, historically, the means by which children learn to solve their own problems, control their own lives, develop their own interests, and become competent in pursuit of their own interests.
One thing we know about anxiety and depression is that they correlate significantly with people’s sense of control or lack of control over their own lives. People who believe that they are in charge of their own fate are less likely to become anxious or depressed than those who believe that they are victims of circumstances beyond their control. You might think that the sense of personal control would have increased over the last several decades. Real progress has occurred in our ability to prevent and treat diseases; the old prejudices that limited people’s options because of race, gender, or sexual orientation have diminished; and the average person is wealthier than in decades past. Yet the data indicate that young people’s belief that they have control over their own destinies has declined sharply over the decades.
By depriving children of opportunities to play on their own, away from direct adult supervision and control, we are depriving them of opportunities to learn how to take control of their own lives. We may think we are protecting them, but in fact we are diminishing their joy, diminishing their sense of self-control, preventing them from discovering and exploring the endeavors they would most love, and increasing the odds that they will suffer from anxiety, depression, and other disorders.
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