It is so important that the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights recognizes “the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.” Apparently, the media, moms, doctors and scientists also share that view (and did you know that there is even an American Journal of Play?). Athletics and other organized sports are invaluable for children. We can also agree that increasing the amount of time our kids spend actively and freely playing is good for their physical and mental health, development and independence. Yet despite these benefits, free play among U.S. children has dropped significantly in recent decades.
It’s tempting to blame this decline in free play solely on “the seductive qualities of television and, more recently, computer games and Internet activities,” but we also know that parents are often fearful of sending kids outside to play without supervision. Remember hearing, “go play outside and come home when the streetlights come on?” I heard that as a kid growing up in the suburbs. Whether or not we had that experience, it’s no more than nostalgia now. Justified or not, we have developed a heightened sense of “stranger danger,” and many families face threats to their children’s safety near their homes, like high-speed traffic, drug deals within view, gang violence and the fear of police harassment, particularly in low-income communities of color.
For all of these efforts, safety should be top of mind: families will stay home if parents don’t feel comfortable. Admittedly, what constitutes a safe and active play space for children is in the eye of the beholder, and consensus on what’s best can be hard to come by. For example, when my ALBD colleague, Fay Gibson, recently blogged about the lack of safety on the streets of disadvantaged communities, we reacted very differently to the same image, shown left. I felt nostalgic when I saw the photo because I grew up playing ball in the street in front of my house in the suburbs. I remembered summertime and fun with friends. But Fay recalls a different experience, as described in her blog, of young people’s routine exposure to violence within their own neighborhoods. That exposure, Fay explains, is not limited to the past. I recognize that the privilege I had to enjoy my youth without constant danger is not something that all families share.
Fay calls on us to act for total health for all. I agree and hope that we include safe play as an indicator of total health in communities, parks and child care centers, whether they are in middle-class suburbs or low-income urban neighborhoods.
 American Journal of Play, Volume 3, Number 4. © 2011 by The Strong. Contact Peter Gray at email@example.com. Accessed at http://www.journalofplay.org/sites/www.journalofplay.org/files/pdf-articles/3-4-article-gray-decline-of-play.pdf