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Helicopter Landing: Let Kids Play By Their Own Rules How Free Play Helps Kids Develop Socially, Mentally, and Physically

For kids, playing under their own rules may yield social, physical, and even civic benefits.

It's an essential tool in any parent's toolbox: A childhood tale to establish your generation's superiority over that of your offspring. For those who didn't walk uphill in the snow both ways, the American Journal of Play has offered a new story to hold over the heads of your kids: "We played outside—and liked it."

In the journal's latest issue, experts argue that a decline in unstructured outdoor play among kids has left today's whippersnappers screen-addled, hyper-protected, or worse. "For every child, there was a dad standing there coaching every move—moving the kids’ arms, catching them as they came down the tiny slide, doing virtually everything for them," former Psychology Today editor-in-chief Hara Estroff Marano writes of her now-wimpy neighborhood playground. "When my kids were young, we parents sat around the perimeter, let the kids play, and didn’t get involved unless someone had a bloody nose or something like it."

Marano goes on to argue that while today's helicopter parents agonize over the prospect of sexual predators, germs, and broken bones outside the home, they're really depriving their children of the health benefits of exercise, the immune-strengthening effects of playing in the dirt, the social skill development of spontaneous socialization, and even the ad-hoc training to participate in a democratic society. Anthropologists David F. Lancy and M. Annette Grove write (PDF) that by creating, organizing, and playing games on their own, children develop social intelligence that is lost in highly adult-managed activities like (horrors!) Little League. Peter Gray gets even more serious on play, claiming (PDF) that as kids engage less and less in "free play," the're put at greater risk of "anxiety, depression, suicide, feelings of helplessness, and narcissism."

Micro-managing your child's play is unlikely to drive him to suicide. But allowing kids to play under their own rules may yield social, physical, and even civic benefits as they transition into adolescence. The remedy couldn't be easier: Just open the back door. Now, what to do with all the helicopter parents who are no longer on slide duty?

Photo (cc) via Flickr user edenpictures.

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