In a recent article, Boston College psychology professor Peter Gray argues that children today are "suffering from a severe deficit of play" that corresponds to their general loss of freedom. This stems from a variety of reasons: children increasingly attend school—or something structured a lot like school—at earlier ages and for longer hours. Adult-led activities have largely replaced child-led ones: organized sports teams, not pickup games; art lessons, not unstructured hours spent with sketchbooks and pencils or canvas and paint.

Furthermore, dangers both real and perceived—as well as changing social dynamics—keep kids under closer supervision than decades before. In New York City in the 1960s, my parents grew up with the kind of freedom that today might be considered verging on criminally negligent. My mom, at 10 or so, took the subway by herself to go to her dentist appointment; my dad spent long days playing all over the neighborhood, everyone's parents keeping an eye on everyone's kids, and mealtimes being the only things on the schedule.

Gray argues that there's a connection between these losses of freedom—which collectively reduce children's opportunities for play—and the startling increase in mental illnesses in children. The rates of generalized anxiety disorder and major depression among children are five to eight times more prevalent than they were in the 1950s using the same diagnostic tools, and the suicide rate for children under 15 has quadrupled. What's the connection between play and these frightening outcomes?

While proving causation is difficult and fraught, Gray points out that anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts are frequently ...

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