It goes without saying that kids are growing up in a different world these days. With faster cars and improved technology, you would be hard pressed to find children playing outdoors or without some sort of electronic device in their hands.

It wasn't too long ago when kids rode their bikes or played stickball in the middle of the street, without adult supervision. The middle of the street. Yes, that would be unheard of today, even in the suburban oasis that is New Canaan.

"Many people underestimate the value of play time. I would go so far as to say the necessity of play time," Nicholas Strouse, director of Westport Family Counseling said. "Herein lies a problem with some of the contemporary ways kids play."

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An article by Hilary Stout which appeared in The New York Times at the beginning of this year took a deeper look into statistics and other factors that suggest the changing or disappearing nature of play for kids today.

According to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation in 2010, kids spend an average of seven hours and 38 minutes in front of a screen. Additionally, the Centers of Disease Control released a report in 2010 that determined only one in five kids live within walking distance of a playground or park.

"Behind the numbers is adult behavior as well as children's: Parents furiously tapping on their BlackBerrys in the living room, too stressed by work demands to tolerate noisy games in the background," Stout wrote in the piece. "Weekends consumed by soccer, lacrosse and other sports leagues, all organized and directed by parents. The full slate of lessons (chess, tae kwon do, Chinese, you name it) and homework beginning in the earliest grades."

The bigger picture at work here is children losing the core benefits of playtime. Most experts define playtime as an activity that is started and carried through solely by the children themselves. So catalysts for play, such as like video games, board games and others, do not necessarily conform to that definition. Experts say many of the foundations for our reasoning and emotional abilities as adults are cemented as children during playtime.

"In play time, for example, children play games and explore fantasies that manipulate and negotiate ethical dilemmas, or solidify their personal and family values," Strouse said. "Play time gives children a chance to experiment with self-sufficiency and independence. And independence is a key in individuation, another important step for kids.

"One of the most important aspects of play time is the need to learn about, and internalize the ability to self-regulate and self-soothe," he said. "These are important cornerstones for the foundation of healthy relationships. If these skills and stages are not mastered, children can in fact be set up for a life of disproportionate melancholy, and conflict."

Pamela Turner, director of the New Canaan Community Nursery School, would certainly agree with Strouse's assertions. In fact, the new tag line for the nursery school is "Where play has a purpose."

"Most of the social and intellectual skills one needs to succeed in life and work are developed through childhood play," Turner said. "Scientists believe it is also a crucial factor in children's overall well-being."

Turner certainly practices what she preaches and one visit to the nursery school will show her words in action. Turner encourages her teachers to ask open-ended questions to the kids with hopes they will learn more from themselves rather than from the teachers.

"Our teachers know that children learn best when they are able to construct their own knowledge," she said. "I am always amazed by the airports on the block rug, the soup being made with beans at the sensory table and how magnet blocks become rocket ships with scientists inside."

Unfortunately, her methods don't seem to be standard practice around the country. The issue of technology keeping everyone, parents and children alike, occupied seems to be a main point of concern. However, Strouse said technology has its place, especially when it pertains to development.

"There definitely are some valid points about video games improving dexterity, hand-eye coordination, cognitive processing and creativity," he said. "The iPad has become a sensation, as well as a sensational tool that can improve these abilities."

Strouse said technology itself isn't an issue, it's the potential for overuse.

"The idea is not whether technology has provided good ways to play," he added. "The idea is about when it is good to play with technology."

Strouse also stressed that children have a tendency to rely on technology as a distraction in order to escape certain emotional situations. He sees that as a potential pitfall.

"If children have not learned how to emotionally regulate themselves, they have a tendency to rely upon distraction and discharge, in order to escape discomfort, or pain," he explained. "Therefore, if a child cannot handle feeling frustrated, aroused, angry, frightened or sad -- Facebook, Google, Sony Playstation, Xbox and the iPhone can be more foe than friend."

So as he stated before, the problem arises because of the nature of child development and not necessarily because of the nature of technology. In those cases, technology can propagate unhealthy behavior in children if not monitored properly.

The issue then falls on the parents or caretakers of these kids. How do parents foster free form play without actually intervening too much? It certainly is a fine line but Turner has some simple suggestions for those parents.

"One way is to provide a variety of open ended materials such as blocks, LEGOs trains, old clothes, shoes and handbags for dramatic play. Recycled paper and fabric scraps can be collected in a big box for making collages," Turner said. "In addition to providing these materials, parents may also have to tolerate a little more unpredictability in the house. My daughters recently created a fort using all of the towels from the linen closet."

Needless to say, towel forts and shoeboxes can certainly create a mess. The key, Turner said, is to focus on having fun with your children without worry too much about the semantics.

"Children develop healthy self-esteem when parents respect their imaginary play and allow them to be in charge. You will also find out a great deal about how your child thinks and feels," she said. "The most valuable part of this collaboration is that when you enter a child's world on their terms, you create memories that last a lifetime."