How helicopter parents rob children of their freedom to play: psychologists

Children today – they must not be children.

Spontaneous children’s games – a walk through the woods, playing tag outside or just staring at the clouds on a summer afternoon – are becoming a thing of the past.

And parents are the ones sounding the alarm, even as they become caught up in the increase in the fear-fueled, heavily supervised “game.”

“When I was a kid, there was none of that,” said one participant in a recent University of Essex study of structured playtime.

“It didn’t exist in the 1950s. Back then there was more freedom, we always went out and my mother didn’t think to worry… you just went down [into] It was a freer time in the forest.”

The study, published in the journal Sociology of Health & Fitnesssurveyed 28 UK residents born between 1950 and 1994 about their own history of physical activity and how family members influenced those experiences.

children play
Parents lament the lack of unstructured playtime for their children.
NY Post illustration

The research found that significant changes in parenting habits began in the 1990s.

“Until about the 1990s, parents were not expected to endlessly entertain and supervise their children as they do today, giving children more freedom to play independently,” said study author Dr. John Day said in a press release.

“But since these children have become parents themselves, society has changed and there has been a greater sense of responsibility for their children’s development,” Day added.

Children play outside
According to parents and researchers, unstructured play is becoming a thing of the past.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Much of this sense of responsibility arose from the realization that as technology, the internet, and video games began to take over children’s day, children weren’t getting enough time for physical play.

So concerned helicopter parents rushed in to fill the children’s diaries with structured play dates and organized group activities.

“The Xbox generation, as they call it… my boy is a prime example,” said a frustrated father in the poll. “I’ve fought it since he was a teenager… the virtual world is their world. They just sit in their bedrooms.”

And now, said the same parents, spontaneity has disappeared from the children’s lives. “Everything seems organized and needs supervision to make sure the kids are okay.”

Gone, the father lamented, are the days when parents would tell their child, “Just go and enjoy some freedom, go and do what you want to do,” adding that it was “a great shame.”

“Today’s society portrays parents as the sole engineers of their children’s development, which is an unrealistic burden that creates unjustified pressures and expectations,” Day said.

Dad watches the child play
Normally, parents monitor their child’s playtime.
Getty Images

Part of this social pressure is caused by increased risk awareness.

“One aspect of the problem is the increasing fear of stranger danger,” Day said, citing concerns about child abduction, “and more traffic on the streets.”

Therefore, “the opportunities for children to engage in physical activity through spontaneous play are limited.”

The result, according to Day and many parents, is a loss of the independence gained through unstructured, unsupervised play.

“Parents are encouraged to spend more time with their children while evaluating how independent their children are,” Day said.

“But most of the learning about independence occurs when children take self-imposed risks, and those opportunities are lost in childhood.”

Caroline Bleakley

Caroline Bleakley is a USTimeToday U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Caroline Bleakley joined USTimeToday in 2022 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with Caroline Bleakley by emailing

Related Articles

Back to top button