Slow Parenting, Fast Playing

The presence of crocuses pushing through the damp hard earth is considered by many a true sign of spring.  A splash of color poking through a bleak winter landscape is a reassuring sign of hope.

After a long Seattle winter of persistent drizzle and gray low-hanging skies, the reappearance in my neighborhood of children playing outside is another welcome harbinger of longer, sunnier days to come. I couldn’t help but smile this weekend as I watched roving bike packs of kids dart in and out of homemade obstacle courses. The children squealed with delight as they chased each other, liberated in their free play over dry pavement.  As I passed by, I spotted the strategically placed “children at play” signs and I thought, how true.

children at play

Honestly, I had never noticed the bright yellow diamonds dotting the streets at regular intervals. My son assured me they had been there for quite some time. I realized with dismay that I had overlooked the signs because I had not slowed down enough – in the proverbial sense – to notice.  I found myself nostalgic for the carefree days when my own children had unstructured play time rather than their now over-extended weekends of organized sports and group project meetings. I found myself wishing for more “slow-down time” for my kids and it made me recall the work of author Carl Honoré, who coined the term “Slow Parenting,” a few years ago.

Honoré is generally credited as a spokesperson for the Slow Movement philosophy which encourages less structured activities and more free play as a gateway to a happier, healthier life. Honoré acknowledges the societal pressures that make parents feel that if they don’t provide a constant stream of learning opportunities; their kids will be disadvantaged as adults.  He is the author of several books including, The Power of Slow: Finding Balance and Fulfillment beyond the Cult of Speed, and Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting.

Carl Honoré TED Talk

Last week, Linda wrote about the parent referendum feeling that the college admission process fuels. Honoré provides great context on how our culture feeds this concern early on. In our own local public school district the publicity and fundraising efforts extol us to contribute private money so that our children can compete in a “cognitive, digital and global world.” Imagine the hyper-ventilating that must go on when the parent of a 5-year-old is subjected to this message from the first day of Kindergarten.  Is it any wonder that parents seek to make their children’s childhood  productive?

Parenting is challenging and gives us the opportunity to have a constant inner-dialogue of doubt. However, we can give ourselves a break by knowing that nature will take its course as well and we don’t need to provide a perfect, structured childhood. We don’t need a parent intervention to affirm what our gut already tells us. It is good for parents and children to slow down and play.

Carol Lewis Gullstad

March 25, 2013


  1. Great post and thanks for your wise words. You know that I am in this camp! I’m going to check out the Ted talk. One challenge, for some of our boys “unstructured” play time means stupid video games, especially when the allure of trees and forts wanes. Then, what?

    • As parents we know that video games aren’t really unstructured play because there is a pre-set play environment. The games certainly attract teenagers with the elements of escapism, freedom and refuge from chores and structured practice times for sports, music, homework etc. However, video games require very little creative and social skills thinking, the key benefits of unstructured play. A rule of thumb we use when screen time seems to be getting out of hand is “earn an hour of video time” per hour spent on a non-screen activity.


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