Home All Stop Over-Parenting And Let Your Kids Play!

Stop Over-Parenting And Let Your Kids Play!

written by Thomas Heffner 25 January 2013

Thomas Heffner, MAPP 2012, is a leader in Design Thinking and works at the intersection of design, technology, and business. Working at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, he uses human-centered design to create transformative solutions for the complex and challenging problems facing our nation's security. He is a curious explorer of the world around him and draws much inspiration from meeting new people. So feel free to drop him a line @tom_heffner or visit his website. Full bio. Articles by Thomas are here.

“Tom, can you recommend a good preschool for my 4-year-old daughter? She’s already taught herself to read and write, so it needs to be a place that will challenge her.”

These were the first words my new colleague spoke to me after our formal introductions. She was new to the area and looking for advice. Perhaps some people – or maybe even more than a few – might admire this woman’s obvious devotion to her child’s learning. However, as I listened to her animatedly discuss their nightly math and reading practice sessions, I kept thinking how little time her daughter must have to play. And that saddened me immensely because childhood play is critically important to our children’s development.

Play helps spark and sustain curiosity in our children. Play also helps our children discover and cultivate their signature strengths. In short, play is what helps our children become successful in life.

Play Helped Me Become an Engineer

As I reflect on my childhood, I see how playing helped me become successful as an engineer. As a child, one of my favorite play activities was building things. It didn’t matter what the project entailed—building elaborate forts made of pillows and blankets, model airplanes, sand castles, or soapbox derby cars—I loved building anything and everything!

Fortunately, my parents encouraged my passion for building and creating, and over time I developed a curiosity for how and why things work in the world. For example, while building my soapbox derby car, I would ask my dad questions like “What happens if I make the wheels larger?” or “Will I go downhill faster if I make the car bigger?” Slowly, over time and throughout my childhood, I began developing and honing my problem-solving skills. This development was very important because I now work as an engineer, and problem solving is an occupational requirement. It is the one skill I use each and every day.

Play and Curiosity

According to Todd Kashdan, a leading researcher in the relationship between curiosity and well-being, my development of curiosity and problem-solving over time through childhood play makes perfect sense. In his book Curious, Kashdan says that play is a pleasurable experience, and “a training ground for young children … to develop essential social and problem-solving skills that last a lifetime.” If we think about curiosity, this should make sense to us as well. Curiosity is the drive to understand, learn, or experience something new. When we play, we engage our curiosity in a fun way, driving us to learn and sharpen new skills, talents or ideas along the way.

Even more important for us as parents, when we encourage our children to play and consequently develop their curiosity, we put them on a path to greater success in school and, ultimately, in life. In his book, Kashdan offers several key findings from landmark studies involving curiosity that confirm this notion. For example, kids who are highly curious raised their IQ scores significantly more than less curious kids over an 8-year period. Not surprisingly, further studies demonstrated that curiosity predicts higher grades and test scores in school.

But life is not just about performing well on tests or bringing home straight A’s. We need to apply what we learn. Here too, says Kashdan, curiosity rises above everything else, as a superior predictor of students’ willingness to transfer knowledge gained into long-term interests and careers.

Play Builds Strengths and Positive Emotions

Perhaps just as important as sparking our curiosity, play has the power to cultivate our children’s natural strengths and talents. I need only look to my son playing his favorite game – soccer – to illustrate this result. Place him on a field with a soccer ball and he can play for hours by himself or with other kids. He has so much fun that when he is not playing, he is constantly asking about his next game or practice. Over time, soccer has helped him develop and nurture his natural talents. For instance, although he is not exceptionally fast, he does have great stamina. Running all the time while playing soccer has increased his stamina to the point where he could outrun both my wife and me, even if we were a relay team!

In addition, soccer has helped him to further understand and cultivate teamwork. As much as he wants to, he has learned he can’t score every goal. After much play and experience, he now understands he has to pass the ball to his teammates at times so they can score a goal to help the team win.

At the heart of my son’s talent and strength cultivation are positive emotions. When he plays he experiences positive emotions like joy, excitement, and zest, to name just a few. According to Barbara Fredrickson, a leading researcher on emotions, these positive emotions are crucially important to him at this age because they encourage him to be open, to continue playing, and to explore new and varied thoughts and actions. In effect, they help him broaden and build his skills and resources over time. For my son, that means exploring what happens when you involve your teammates. Sometimes, passing the ball means you will score. At other times, passing the ball means not scoring, or missing your teammate altogether.

All this is part of the broaden-and-build process. The end result is that my son developed new strengths he can draw on as he meets tougher challenges in school and life. Furthermore, as he continues playing soccer and other games, he will continue to develop new strengths and talents, as well as improve his strength of teamwork. While utilizing his strengths certainly helps my son now and during his school age years, it will become even more important as a working adult. Engagement studies strongly suggest that my son will be more likely to achieve his goals at work, as well as find greater meaning and passion at work, if he uses his strengths while working – the very strengths he is now developing and sharpening as he plays.

“Go outside and play.”

I hope these ideas can convince you, or even make you stop and think for a little while. Let’s stop the over-parenting. Your children do not have to know algebra or read Dickens by the time they enter kindergarten. Let them be kids while they are kids. Let them play. Encourage play activities that maximize curiosity, positive emotions, and the cultivation of strengths and talents. For further ideas on how to nurture play for kids, you can read Peter Emmenegger’s article on play. Here is a summary of his guidelines.

  • Go outside and play whenever possible. Children need free time to develop their own games and ways of playing by themselves or with friends. Nothing kills a child’s imagination or creativity like fancy computer games or the latest electronic gadget. They simply adhere to the rules of the game, content to be passive and reactive. Outside, they are forced to generate their own rules for games within a multisensory environment.
  • Encourage Natural Play. Limit or curtail TV and computer time. Watching cartoons or TV shows is a passive activity. Instead, encourage your children to develop their own stories, characters, and worlds. If they are used to watching TV or playing on the computer, be prepared for boredom at first. Make suggestions for make-believe play to help jump-start their creativity. Ask open-ended questions about their characters. “How did King Richard find his way to the moon?”
  • Encourage outdoor adventures by reserving time to explore the outdoors. For example, make time to dig holes in the dirt, catch tadpoles in the stream, collect rocks from the park, or catch bugs. Jump-start a child’s curiosity by catching tadpoles and explaining their transformation to frogs!
  • Always remember the golden toy rule: toys should be 90% child and 10% toy. We want the child’s imagination to be the engine that drives play. Simple toys require active participation and imagination. Simple toys can be knocked over or wiped away, forcing children to create new games and fun from scratch.



Biswas-Diener, R., Kashdan, T. B., Minhas, G. (2011). A dynamic approach to psychological strength development and intervention. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6(2), 106-118.

Emmenegger, P. (n.d.) Nurturing the playful mind. Natural Child Magazine.

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.

Kashdan, T. (2009). Curious?: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. New York: William Morrow.

Photo Credits (All from Compfight with a creative commons license )
Preschool courtesy of barnabywasson
Soapbox derby car courtesy of Mollenborg
Building Sandcastles courtesy of Dhammika Heenpella
Playing soccer alone courtesy of Macarena Viza
Playing soccer with others courtesy of cassimano
Climbing a tree courtesy of Mitchio

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Oz 25 January 2013 - 2:27 pm

Thomas – like you I’m also an engineer – and I’m a little obsessed about knowing hw things work.

I guess that’s why I look closely at pp.

I have looked far and wide and cannot find any validated intervention to enhance curiosity – I wonder if it’s innate?

Are you aware of any interventions for adults?

Tom Heffner 26 January 2013 - 10:17 pm


Glad to see another engineer in Positive Psychology! Great questions you pose. I think you are probably right in that a lot of curiosity might be innate. Just watch a group of 5 year olds in preschool and you will see which kids possess the curiosity “gene” right away! That being said, there is a lot parents can do to snuff those early tendencies and character traits right out. The mix of nature vs nurture and how that plays out in different environments is probably the subject of a very carefully constructed and LONG longitudinal study. Also, as of now, I am in the same boat as you, I haven’t found much in the way of validated curiosity interventions. But I’ll continuing to search! Be sure to let me know if you find anything in your search.


Jeremy McCarthy 27 January 2013 - 10:03 pm

HI Tom, Great article. I agree with all of your comments on play but I would also add that the idea of reading and math as work and not play is largely a cultural aspect of the world that adults have created. Young children are like learning machines and they are excited to learn about anything. I don’t think that a child who starts reading early is necessarily a sign of over-parenting. It could be a sign of a child who loves books. It could be a sign of a parent’s own passion for reading that trickles down into the child.

I know of parents who could use the same words to describe their son’s passion for reading that you use to describe your son’s passion for soccer. Kids are different and they should be exposed to many different kinds of activities. Parents don’t have to choose between active outdoor play and reading or math. Why not all of the above? Or let the child select his or her interests? Don’t you think reading and math could “maximize curiosity, positive emotions, and the cultivation of strengths and talents?” I do.

That being said, I think Emmeneger’s suggestions are great and really important in a world where more and more “play” happens indoors and in front of a screen.

Thanks for a thought provoking article!

Tom Heffner 28 January 2013 - 9:04 am

Hi Jeremy,

Great points you raise, and probably point more to my failure to articulate myself well. As an example, one of my son’s favorite bed time activities is to read his books with mom and dad.

If I had a second chance, I would make a clearer distinction of what I regard as “over-parenting.” For me, it is more of a parent’s overly rigid and structured environment. That is, they take the child’s own curiosity and creativity out of the play equation. You can do that with sports just as easily as you can with reading/math. I remember one of my childhood friends who was forced to practice/play basketball everyday – running each and every one of the drills his father designed for him. Many times, he didn’t want to practice/play basketball, but he did anyways.

In my mind, that is just as bad as the parent who steals his child’s curiosity, creativity, and play through overly rigid and structured reading/math activities.

Again, great observations and thanks for pointing it out to me!

Jeremy McCarthy 28 January 2013 - 12:50 pm

Thanks for clarifying Tom. I’m not surprised that you were reacting to the rigidity of their “nightly reading and math sessions.” I probably would have reacted the same way. I think another aspect of all of this is that kids will love doing whatever engages their parents. So some parents might enjoy playing make-believe with their kids more or reading with their kids more or whatever and the kids will get turned on because their parents become present in those moments. I try to be very present with my kids when I’m doing “chores.” So my 2-year-old loves to cook, clean the kitchen, help me do dishes, help with laundry, etc. I realize the chances of this passion for housework sticking with them through adolescence is nil, but hoping by then some foundational habitual pathways will have been laid :-).

Editor K.H.B. 29 January 2013 - 10:38 am


You can have a second chance. People who read the article in the future may not read down as far as the comments, so if there’s something you’d like to change in the article, let me know and I can make it happen.


Oz 30 January 2013 - 1:55 pm

Tom. – just some further contemplation on curiosity. From a developmental perspective play makes sense for children – motor skills, social skills etc. However as we mature play becomes less important and {edited: survival of the series becomes more important}. I’m wondering whether play (curiosity) in adults might be a sign of a lack of development in frontal lobes


Tom Heffner 30 January 2013 - 7:17 pm


Thanks for the heads up on updating our article. I’ll send you a revised draft with the minor changes shortly.


Tom Heffner 30 January 2013 - 7:32 pm


A thoughtful question regarding curiosity and adults. My own experience working at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (~4700 people) does not fit this view. I’d say most of the engineers (very very curious people) I work with are emotionally stable, conservative, and easy going. Of course that could be a function of the profession and/or niche industry/organization I work in.

My first though regarding your observation is that those curious but volatile (emotionally) adults probably lack self-regulation as a strength. Or perhaps it is a weakness with them. It would be interesting to look at the VIA results around this – are curious adults more likely to have self-regulation as a bottom strength? I have a VIA data set for engineers that I can analyze, but I will talk to Ryan Niemiec about looking at the data set for the general population and see what that shows…

Oz 31 January 2013 - 8:25 am

Tom – I just checked out the curiosity scale Psychometrics – it has a .5 correlation with {edited: extraversion} I’d speculate most engineers are introverted so I’m wondering whether they would be curious. {edited}

Jeremy McCarthy 31 January 2013 - 10:26 am

I wrote a paper once hypothesizing that each of the VIA strengths could be applied across three domains: physical, mental and sociocultural (Haidt uses these domains describing “cross-coherence” in The Happiness Hypothesis.) With curiosity, for example, some people may be curious about things, curious about ideas (their own or others,) or curious about other people. So I do think there could be different styles of curiosity, some which may be more prevalent in introverts vs. extraverts.

Judy Krings 1 February 2013 - 3:00 pm

Thanks, Jeremy for your creative bend to applying strengths to 3 domains.Super food for thought.

Tom Heffner 1 February 2013 - 4:04 pm

Oz, Jeremy,

Really interesting thoughts. Let me take them one by one.

If we hypothesize that emotionally volatile people score less on the self regulation subscale(s) of the VIA, then it certainly looks like engineers (on average) are illustrative of your observations/anecdotal experience (interesting because it is counter to my own experiences as an engineer).

According to the VIA data that I’ve analyzed (engineers only), engineers score extremely high on curiosity (no surprise there), but score extremely low on self regulation.

I like the VIA cross coherence idea you describe. It would be interesting to conduct a study on specific groups of people (e.g. vocation, education, etc) and see how some of the VIA Strengths play out across domains (physical, mental, sociocultural). Perhaps when I make it back to Hawaii I can conduct the first experiment on Surfers….and curiosity. 🙂

Oz 2 February 2013 - 1:10 pm

Tom – I do find your results interesting. Still wondering what the curiosity construct is actually measuring. Perhaps it is measuring the lack of self regulation – which I guess was my original suggestion. {edited}


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