Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Importance of Encouraging Free Play

A leading colleague in the field of toys and games wrote this letter to Mrs. Obama that I thought was so good it was worth sharing in its entirety. It's a wonderful ode to the importance of open-ended play--something all of us here at Think-a-lot Toys believe in wholeheartedly...

Dear Mrs. Obama,

I was very pleased to read about your efforts in getting America's children active through your “Let's Move America” program.

For those who may still be unaware of your initiative, it has set as its goal “…solving the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation.” One way that the initiative seeks to get some of that weight off is through getting kids to get out from in front of their computer screens and go outside and play.

I applaud your desire to see children to play outside and be active. I firmly believe, however, that there is an even bigger reason for children to play outside than improving their physical health and losing weight. They need to do it so that we and they can continue to maintain a civil society and a robust democracy.

Does that sound like an oversized statement? Hear me out: Outdoor play teaches children to be good citizens of a democracy; it teaches them to be leaders; it teaches them to be entrepreneurs; and it teaches them to get along with their neighbors. Here's why: Unlike indoor games, outdoor games typically don't have strict rules. Buy a board game and you will get a precise set of regulations. Play outdoors and you will usually have to establish the rules yourself.

When we were children, we had lots of free time, particularly in the summer when school was out. If we decided, for example, to play Wiffleball, we and not our parents decided which bush or tree was a base and whether hitting the ball out of the yard into the street was a home run. In addition, we chose our own captains, the captains chose their own teams and everyone had to decide (with no parent or umpire present) if someone was out. In short, we made the law, we obeyed the law and we enforced the law.

Don't get me wrong, indoor games are vitally important to a society as well; they teach us how to regulate our lives within a legal structure, and if there is a disagreement on the interpretation of the rules, we learn how to parse them and make a “legal” decision. Outdoor games, however, give us something more. They don't just teach us how to obey and interpret the law, they teach us how to make and enforce it as well.

And that's not all: You don't have to have lots of money to play outdoor games. In fact, you don't have to have any. All you need is a ball, a jump rope, jacks, a piece of chalk or a stick. If you want to play hide and seek or tag, you don't need anything but raw energy and imagination. Outdoor play is the peoples' play.

So why don't kids go out and play today?

They simply don't have the time. There are too many soccer league practices, too many music lessons, too many adult-organized play groups and too many hours spent riding in the back seat of a car. When they get home, they need to do their homework. It's no wonder we hear so much about the amount of hours kids spend in front of TV and computer screens.

Children haven't just lost the time devoted to free play; they have lost the spontaneity that comes from having no adults in their way. Remember how much fun it was to play with no adults around? In fact, 'grown-up' was almost a bad word in those days. Who needed them? As long as we stayed on the block and no one got hurt, cried, fought or yelled too loudly, we got to do pretty much whatever we wanted. Mostly, at least to our parents, we were seen and unseen. Like little wills of the wisp, we scurried down alleys, climbed over fences and crawled under porches. We were out there, our parents keeping half an ear and an eye out in the hope that they might spot us. Children today, however, are overly guarded and guided. Adults hover over them, choosing teams, establishing rules and setting boundaries. Children simply do not have any freedom. They are in a perpetual lock down.

So, here is an idea, Mrs. Obama, ask America's parents to give their kids back their free time and their freedom. Let them employ their imaginations, their backyards and their friends to choose what they want to do as well as when, how and with whom they want to do it. We will all be better off for it.


Richard Gottlieb

(Richard Gottlieb is president of Richard Gottlieb & Associates LLC, a provider of business development services. He has 35 years experience in the toy industry in sales and sales management. He can be reached at

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