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State of Play The best lessons in life are free—and outdoors.

many camps are offering “prep” pro- grams that replace swimming and horseback riding with classes in com- puters and public speaking. Perhaps the biggest problem,

though, is that too few achievement- focused adults realize just how much kids are achieving when they’re playing. “Play is a way of learning,” Elkind says. “Through their play, chil- dren create new learning experiences that they couldn’t have in other ways.”

WHEN A CHILD IS ABDUCTED from any street corner in America, the story understandably leads the evening news and earns a “breaking news” banner on So what happens when millions of children disappear from America’s backyards and playgrounds? No one notices. Well, almost no one. In recent years, child develop-

ment experts have begun sounding the alarm about the decline in free outdoor play. David Elkind, Ph.D., author of The Power of Play, says that children have lost eight hours a week of unstructured play and outdoor activities in the past two decades, even as the time they spend in orga-

18 S COUTING ¿ March•april 2012

nized sports has doubled. In a 2011 issue of the American Journal of Play, dedicated to free play, Peter Gray, Ph.D., a research professor in psychol- ogy at Boston College, reported that 85 percent of American moms say their preteen children play outdoors less than they themselves did a gen- eration ago. “Stranger danger” is the leading

reason that kids are enjoying less free play, but it’s only one factor. Many schools are cutting back on recess to make more time for academics and test preparation. Many parents are enrolling their kids in sports and other activities that help them build winning résumés at earlier ages. And

What Free Play Teaches One of the key things kids learn in free play is how to deal with one another. In a simple game like hide and seek, for example, they have to decide what the boundaries are, where home base is, and who’s going to be “it” first. If the child who’s “it” opens his eyes before he has counted down to zero, the group has to nego- tiate an appropriate resolution. Along the way, Elkind says, “Children learn mutual respect, the ability to take the perspective of the other, to follow the rules that your peer makes so he’ll follow the rules that you make.” But kids learn more quantifiable

skills as well, Gray says. Much of his research involves studying play in hunter-gatherer societies, where children—even well into their teens—spend most of their time playing. “They’re playing at the skills that are important to the culture, not because anybody is telling them to but just because it’s very natural to

YOU CAN READ the entire American Journal of Play issue dedicated to free play by visiting


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