Simply put, the very act of free play brings joy to children.
Yet parents’ careful planning of kids’ activities may account for why 85 percent of children today report higher levels of depression and anxiety than their same-aged counterparts did in the 1950s. Youth simply aren’t reaping the benefits of play, which may negatively affect their adult life, Gray argues.
Gray also writes that who your child plays with should gain some consideration. In humans’ evolutionary history, children have mostly played with siblings or peers of different ages, which contrasts with how children are grouped in school and play environments today.
Though few studies examine age-mixed play, a handful suggests the activity has a positive effect on both older and younger participants.
For instance, one analysis studied 2-year-olds and 5-year-olds as they played with their own age groups and then when they mixed. It turns out the 5-year-olds not only behaved as creatively with the 2-year-olds when compared to their same-aged peers, but they also provided the younger kids with props and easy instructions to participate more.
Gray argues these interactions expand the cognitive boundaries of play for youngsters and reinforce leadership and empathetic qualities for older children. Also, neither sees the other as a competitor or authority figure, which makes age-mixed play different from games with same-aged peers or adults.
Learning by observation is a key area too. In one observation, Gray recalls when an older child helped a younger one by advising her to “…give seven drops of medicine – no more or less – to a sick doll.” The interaction turned into a math lesson the younger child would not have got from children of the same age.
Though free play still rests in the hands of parents, administrators and educators, perhaps it’s time we loosen up a little and encourage our children to play freely with one another, whether it be outside at the local park or inside at the local indoor play centre.