The perils of giving kids too little time to play become more apparent by the day. Without play, they won’t develop critical self-regulation and executive function skills; they’ll be less creative and less adept at problem-solving; and they may eventually become more depressed and anxious. It’s become enough of an issue that the American Academy of Pediatrics recently recommended that doctors actually prescribe play in an effort to combat parents’ tendency to overschedule their progeny.
Now a new article on why younger people are having less sex presents yet another potential downside: Kids who don’t play much when they’re young may not develop the social skills that young adults need to connect to one another in meaningful ways—which may in turn impact their ability to have healthy, happy sexual relationships.
Kate Julian, who wrote the cover story for the Atlantic, quotes Malcolm Harris from his book, Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials. “Addressing the desexing of the American teenager, he writes:
A decline in unsupervised free time probably contributes a lot. At a basic level, sex at its best is unstructured play with friends, a category of experience that … time diaries … tell us has been decreasing for American adolescents. It takes idle hands to get past first base, and today’s kids have a lot to do.”
Or, as someone else in the article pointed out, it’s hard to find time for romantic antics between cello, soccer practice, and the soup kitchen.
There is ample evidence that kids have less unstructured play time these days. From 1981 to 1997, children’s playtime decreased by 25%, the American Academy of Pediatrics report said. This is partly because parents feel increasingly compelled to put their children in organized activities in order to make them academically competitive, and partly because working parents often lack affordable options that would give their kids the opportunity to engage in free play. (The Danes are an exception.) A national survey of 8,950 preschool children and parents found that only 51% of children went outside to walk or play once per day with either parent. And because of increased academic pressure, 30% of US kindergarten children no longer have recess.
That’s a problem, in no small part because play helps kids develop critical social and emotional skills that underpin both academic performance and being human. Randomized trials of physical play in 7- to 9-year-olds showed that play enhanced kids’ ability to focus on a given task (executive function), and move fluidly between tasks (cognitive flexibility). Pretend play helps kids build self-regulation because children have to collaborate on just how the imaginary world they are living in will work, thus “improving their ability to reason about hypothetical events.” These are skills that help us operate with others as well: staying focused, controlling our emotions, and jumping between tasks.
Julian cites some data showing that young adults seem to have fewer romantic relationships these days. In 1995, she writes, “the large longitudinal study known as “Add Health” found that 66% of 17-year-old men and 74% of 17-year-old women had experienced ‘a special romantic relationship’ in the past 18 months.” By comparison, in 2015, when the Pew Research Center asked teens whether they had a romantic relationship, 35% said yes.
It may seem a long way from play to a dearth of romantic relationships. But the sandbox and the playground are where kids build the muscles to make and sustain friendships. Every tussle and set of tears is a building block in understanding how humans operate. But unstructured play is how they figure it out—not soccer practice where there is a coach, or coding club where there is an objective.
As Harris writes, sex is kind unstructured play for adults, a way to explore and learn and grow with a (hopefully) trusted person. It requires empathy and collaboration, focus and creativity, turn-taking, and a whole lot of risk-taking. More than anything, good sex requires a lot of communication. Smartphones, useful as they may be, come up short in the moment.
The key for parents is to know that social connection and relationships are important. They are hard, and take time and investment. Texting and Snapping is fine, but so is hanging out in person, learning to negotiate awkward silences and navigate painful fights, and even how to make up with a friend. Someday down the road—and hopefully when they’re at a suitable level of emotional maturity—those friends may start to turn into special friends. And that, as Sophie would say in Mama Mia, may lead to “dot dot dot…..”