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The Problem with Playtime Isn’t Video Games; It’s Structured Play



A granola company wants you to make sure our families are not the last generation to get out and enjoy nature.  This is the insight of the latest campaign from Nature Valley called #RedescoverNature.  It begins with grandparents sharing what they did as kids including fishing, berry picking and other outdoor activities.  We then hear from parents who talk about playtime in the neighborhood when kids would get together and play a sport or ride bikes.  Finally, we hear from kids who say they love playing video games and watching shows.

Nature Valley’s video tells an interesting story about how childhood play has moved from outdoors to indoors.  It is a very common theme that isn’t lost on parents who struggle to cap screen time with their kids.  It’s a battle played out across the country as homes are full of game systems, cellphones, tablets, and TVs all grabbing the attention of mom and dad and their kids too. Which leaves a nature named company an opportunity to connect with parents about the lack of nature in our lives.

I like the ad. It’s good. It shows a strong research insight and one most families can relate to.  I also like how the ad simplifies the outdoor versus indoor paradigm.

I also agree with the end of the video where the family goes out in nature to get away from all the devices and to start exploring.  This is something our family does a lot. We especially love going to farms and ranches where we can learn about where our food comes from.  Even going to a farmer’s market where the farmers are there to sell their produce is an experience that increases awareness about what we eat and where it comes from more powerful and staying.

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As a parent today, you have to create these experiences.  Yes when I was a kid we mostly went outside rode our bikes and skateboards, played sports in the street or in someone’s backyard, or we played Dungeons & Dragons or some board game.  We had some crude early video games like Commodore 64 and Atari 2600, but they were nothing like the rich experiences of gaming today.  If we had the game systems of today, we probably would’ve spent a lot more time inside too.

The bigger enemy in my experience as a parent isn’t video games.  The big enemy is structured activities.

Today there are no kids who wander around the neighborhood playing sports or riding bikes. That’s because they are all in after school daycare, swim class, piano class, on a soccer team, or in some other structured sport.  They’re all off doing an activity at a set time every week that are piled on top of each other giving no one time to just go outside and play.  To do that you have to meet with the parents to schedule a playdate.

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That is the death of nature and community.  The structured activity has sucked out the life of childhood and replaced it with $700 classes and finding time on everyone’s calendars to get together for a hour of play in the next couple weeks.

We’re lucky we have twins.  Our boys go bike riding together, play outside together, and yes play video games together.  We do a couple structured activities, but minimally since we don’t want to be a slave to our kids’ calendars.  We do a tennis lesson and a swimming lesson each week.  The rest of the time is unstructured that way we can enjoy life and have kids who aren’t being coached every second they not in school.

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Yes we do battle screen time, but it is set consistently every week and the boys know when a day is not a day for gaming or at the computer.  They fight it time to time and they try to stretch out the time playing games when we are not paying attention, but that’s okay and in the end they do a lot more than play games.

They do a few play dates here and there, but honestly that’s the biggest problem.  So many of their friends are off in some structured program so the ability to just go out and play like I did as a kid is lost.  We’ve made playtime a business.  It’s now $700 for this and $250 for that and $80 for another thing.  Everything that used to be play like shooting hoops with your friends in the neighborhood is a basketball program with a fee and cost for an outfit.  All the kids who love basketball are in a structured program.

Video games are an easy solve for more time outside.  Getting people to move away from structuring every afterschool activity, that is a huge problem with no solution in sight.