Today’s Leviathan conceives its subjects as fragile beings afloat in a field of incipient traumas. Such a governing entity will look with suspicion on the unsupervised play of boys who “challenged each other to spontaneous feats of daring and agility, acted out stories of heroic adventure and collaborated in the enforcement of an informal code of honor that stressed courage, loyalty and stoic endurance of pain.”
That is not at all what is wanted.
What is at stake here is the conditions for the possibility of achieving adulthood, for men and women both. The process of development from childhood to adulthood requires departure from the safety of parental protection and affirmation, through confrontation with hard reality. It is through such confrontation that a person escapes the solipsism of unearned self-esteem, enters the world of objective standards, and begins to develop competence in some field of endeavor.
Other research has assessed relationships between the amount of time children have to direct their own activities and psychological characteristics predictive of future mental health. Such research has revealed significant positive correlations between the amount of self-structured time (largely involving free play) young children have and (1) scores on tests of executive functioning (ability to create and follow through on a plan to solve a set of problems); (2) indices of emotional control and social ability; and (3) scores, 2 years later, on a measure of self-regulation.
Moreover, two retrospective studies with adults have shown that those who recall more instances of independent play when they were children are, by various indices, happier and more successful in adulthood than those who recall less such independence. And research with college students reveals that those with over-controlling parents (as assessed with questionnaires) fare more poorly psychologically than those whose parents are less controlling. These and other correlational studies all point in the same direction. Opportunities to take more control of your own life when young predict better future well-being.
See also this essay by Gray: “Why Adult-Directed Sports Are No Substitute for Kid-Directed Play.” Sports, in our context, are very nearly the opposite of play.