Sudbury group asks- what happened to free play for kids?

It’s all about free play for kids, an advocacy group says. 

International Play Assocation holding events in Sudbury to advocate for more child-structured play

An international group that advocates for more free playtime for kids is holding events in Sudbury. (Shutterstock)

It's all about free play for kids, an advocacy group says. 

The International Play Association (IPA) is holding events across the country teaching parents about the benefits of 'child-structured play.'

Pierre Harrison, the president of the Canadian branch of the IPA, said the events involve gathering "loose parts" like cardboard boxes, tires and wood, and letting kids explore the material in their own way. 

"What we're talking about is giving the children the freedom to play on their own terms," Harrison said. "Today a lot of things that the kids are doing tend to be structured and structured by adults."

Harrison said the idea comes from a respect for, and a desire to nurture each child's individuality.

"Every child is different, so you'll have the child that will just jump into the material, not really knowing what they're going to do and then just start doing things and then it evolves," Harrison said. 

"And you have some kids that will just stand back and watch and see, and then they'll either graph themselves onto another project or they'll start building themselves, being inspired by other people."

Harrison added that if the kids can push boundaries—  notice and analyze risk based on their capacities— they will come out safer, and end up setting the foundation for lifelong learning. 

"It's about that child's ability to go out into the world, their physical and social environments and explore that on their own just to find their own place," Harrison said.  

"And research tells us that when kids are free to explore that environment, that's where we get these problem-solving skills. That's where we get this resilience. That's where we get these social interactions."

Pierre Harrison is the president of the Canadian branch of the International Play Association. (Martine Laberge/Radio-Canada)

As for parents, Harrison said it's best if they are present to nurture the playtime and provide a safe environment, but not to take over. 

"One of the things that I tell people at the play days is that parents you're here to support the kids and I tell the kids you're wearing the boss hat and the parents are there to support it."

"We're not always looking over their shoulder saying 'you should do that. You should do this.'"

And the mental health benefits far outweigh the concern parents may have.

"A lot of people think that play is the opposite of work but that's not true," he said. "Play is children's work."

"And psychologists who have been studying this have noticed ...that since the 50s that type of free play has been diminishing."

"And in the same time we've noticed anxiety, depression increasing in our children," he said. "The CAMH...[has] noticed that 39 per cent of our kids from grade 7 to 12 are either anxious or severely depressed."

Harrison said the lack of free play means kids feel there is a lack of control in their life. This forces kids to turn to areas they do have control, like electronic devices or the television set.

"They've also been turning to food, hence the childhood obesity issue. They've been turning to screens where they have the semblance of control, and they're turning to drugs." 

"And so those are the three big monsters that we're seeing in childhood these days."