Children's free play a casualty of pressure on parents to get activity balance right, study shows

Lack of free play diminishes kids' ability to build on their overall development.

Pressure on parents to make the right decision regarding their children's physical activity schedule is having a negative impact on kids' free play, according to a recent University of Alberta study.

"The complexities of raising children in today's world are something that all parents experience, and they are under a lot of pressure to make the 'right' decisions," said Tina Watchman, former master's student in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation, who collaborated with children's physical activity researcher Nancy Spencer-Cavaliere on the study. "Safety concerns with allowing your children to play with little supervision, the time it takes to set up playdates and the use of electronics distracting from play have contributed to this shift in perspective."

Watchman interviewed parents of children aged eight to 10, all of whom were registered in organized sport. She wanted to gauge parents' perspectives on free play and organized sport for this specific age group, whose independence levels allow them greater freedom to engage in unsupervised free play. The researchers wanted to explore what factors play a role for parents in making these important decisions as the "gatekeepers" of how their children spend their leisure time.

The study revealed that parents feel outside pressure for their decisions regarding their children. Spencer-Cavaliere said allowing children to walk to the corner store by themselves, or putting them in two or more organized sports, often opens parents up to judgment. Conversely, she said, if children aren't allowed much freedom or independence, terms like "helicopter parents" are used and people are quick to accuse parents of "bubble-wrapping" or over-scheduling their children.

Watchman says the research shows that parents of children in this age range will then prioritize sport over free play.

"Sport is great for kids, but it also comes with stresses," said Watchman, who currently works as a research project co-ordinator in the U of A's Department of Human Ecology. "Free play is an opportunity for kids to build on their overall development-mentally, socially and physically-minus the stresses."

Spencer-Cavaliere noted that free play for children in this age group is just as important as when they are toddlers. She said it's during these years that children become more independent and need an outlet to build on social and decision-making skills.

"Allowing them the freedom to play can help develop these skills they will carry on for the rest of their lives," she said.

So how do parents find the balance? Feedback from the study indicates that it all starts with supporting one another.

"Working together-supporting and empowering one another-can help parents navigate these challenges in more supportive environments."

She suggests that parents not only work together, but also with the organizations and communities they belong to. From working with coaches to make sport commitments more manageable, to working with neighbourhoods and schools to create environments that are more supportive of free play, parents can start to bring a balance that is right for their family back to their children's activities.

Spencer-Cavaliere added that another step in overcoming challenges is recognizing that times have changed, but not dwelling on this fact. Instead, she suggested, parents should work together to figure out the new way forward in this balancing act within today's world.

Most importantly, Spencer-Cavaliere also suggests that parents refrain from judging.

"Parents are all in this together, and the more we can empower one another and resist judgment, the more easily we can all navigate these tough decisions and challenges."