While advances in digital technologies are opening previously unimagined opportunities in work, leisure and education, our increasing reliance on technology can have a negative impact on our welfare. One issue, which is of particular concern for parents and educators, is that today’s generation of children are spending more time online and considerably less time playing outdoors, a situation which could negatively impact their emotions, health, intelligence and creativity.
A recent survey revealed that 75% of children in the UK, spend less time outside than prison inmates. Furthermore, the report, Play in Balance, which polled 12,000 parents, recorded that 75% of parents claimed their children preferred playing digital games on a screen rather than playing physical sports outside. Following the publication of this report, schools have been urged to ensure primary pupils get ample opportunities to spend time playing outside during the school day.
Educationalist Sir Ken Robinson told TES, “Schools have a big role because kids spend the greater part of their waking hours at school…..I think it’s important that we look again at the importance of play-based learning – there’s a long history of research to show that play is not a waste of time, it is not time that is badly spent. Play, among human beings, has very important social benefits.”
He added that playing outdoors had a particularly important role in children’s emotional, physical and social development, and it was essential that free play is not, “discouraged or ignored or suppressed.”
The value of play has been long recognized by Western thinkers. As far back as the 18th Century French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau championed the importance of play, and his theories continue to influence present day researchers. In the early 20th Century, Sigmund Freud argued that play was the means by which children accomplish their first cultural and psychological achievements. While recent research studies have established that time spent playing enhances students’ social, emotional, physical and creative development.
In 2012, a review of 40 research papers concluded that the relationship between play and creative problem-solving, cooperation and logical thinking had been clearly proven. The importance of outside playtime is about more than just a means for children to have fun and work out their energy. Access to outdoor play can have lifelong developmental, mental, and educational impacts on a child.
Research by Edward Fisher concluded that play can enhance early development by between 33% and 67%, by increasing adjustment, improving language skills and reducing emotional problems.
Alongside emotional and creative development, play can also improve academic achievement. A US report found that school principals, ‘overwhelmingly believe recess has apositive impact not only on the development of students’ social skills, but also on achievement and learning in the classroom.’ This belief has been reinforced by research which supports the argument that brain development may benefit more from time on the playground than time in the classroom.
According to Sergio Pellis, from the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, the link between academic performance and play can be seen in international education rankings, “countries where they actually have more recess tend to have higher academic performance than countries where recess is less’. The Finnish school system is considered by many to be the most effective education system in the world and schools in Finland ensure students have ample opportunity for free play. Primary school students in Finland are given a 15 minute break every hour during which they are encouraged to play outside.
As well as supporting children’s development, play also helps keep children fit. A study from Deakin University in Australia found that longer playtime at school were associated with higher levels of physical activity, and improved physical health. As the number of primary school children leaving school obese continues to increase, it is becoming increasingly important that children are given sufficient time to exercise.
Finally, getting together outside of the classroom also enables young people to develop social skills. For some students playtime may be the only opportunity they have to interact with other young people in a safe, relaxed environment. In the US, researchers have documented a rise in mental health problems—such as anxiety and depression—among young people that parallels a decline in children’s opportunities to play.
So while educators and parents continue to embrace the advantages of educational technologies and digital learning, it is important that we do not lose sight of the vital role that outdoor play provides in physical, emotional and intellectual development… because there will never be a smartphone app that can replace that.
Daniel Maxwell is a writer and educator.