Wow, a real heartbreaker of a story in Today's New York Times: There is, it seems, a movement afoot to restore children's playtime. This is positive but pitiful, because apparently lots of children have forgotten how to play.
"Play" here is defined, rightly, as stuff kids do on their own--not with digital screens, and not with parents, counselors, coaches, or party motivators. It's what we used to call, in my "Wonder Years"-like childhood, "going outside," except when it was raining, when you called it...um, "playing." Or "making stuff up." And for all our blathering purple TV dinosaurs exhorting kids to "use their imaginations," it would seem that we've turned them into nation of Nevilles: cosseted, overstimulated couch potatoes incapable of a frolic that doesn't involve pixels, vigilant authority figures, or crash helmets.
The usual suspects are blamed: paranoia about unsupervised outdoor roaming, digital everything, and the insane focus on peewee sport and academic superachieving. One profiled mom, who has overcome her painful aversion to stuff littering the floor and embraced free play at home, tried to get recess revived (revived!) at her kids' elementary school:
"But school officials were too worried about potential injuries, unruliness and valuable time lost from academic pursuits to sign on to her idea and, she was surprised to find, many parents were similarly reluctant. “They said: ‘I’m not going to sign that. I’m sure there is a good reason why this is good for our kids — our school has good test scores.’ "
An impressive coalition of sane experts is advocating for a return to simple, old-fashioned play, even staging an "Ultimate Block Party" in Central Park to introduce the city's uber-offspring to such exotic pursuits as make-believe, jump rope and I Spy. Good start, but enabling a play-rich childhood for kids isn't rocket science. The secret to my daughter's happy feral childhood (inspired by the parenting of Bestfriend) was, in a sense, a whole lot of nothing. Bestfriend and I both found great value in: no money, no fear of boredom, and a steely willingness to say "no" to some things (and "yes" to others).
Lack of money. So much cable, so many digital devices, and so few dollars! It's a winning combination. We have never had a video gaming system, because they are really expensive. Yet I've taught classes of inner-city children and polled them: 100% household penetration for these addictive gizmos, even among working-class and poor kids. Ditto for premium cable, cell phones, and other electronic gadgetry. I don't know where folks find the money for this stuff, but we sure as hell didn't have it. So...we didn't buy the stuff. (Everybody's got one? Not you, kiddo!)
Whenever we could, though, we bought books, art supplies, little plastic wild animals and Beanie Babies instead. My Aunt Valeska, a pioneering Montessori teacher, raised my cousins on something thinner than a shoestring, (they are all the most resourceful people I've ever met), and she could get a bunch of kids going with paper bags and string. Her "less is more" philosophy restrained me from feeling obliged to be Daughter's playmate or recreation director. The best stuff happened without my interference, like these (above)...Daughter called them "Tufties," product of her month-long Googly Eyes Period. She wound up taking custom orders for them from schoolmates. (Here, they are guarded by Jawas.) A packet of googly eyes is about 79 cents, by the way.
No fear of boredom. On summer days when the backyard's charms waned, I would drag daughter to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. And I mean drag: It was "stupid" and "boring" and had nothing but "dumb plants" and there was "nothing to do." Until I set her loose in the BBG's Children's Garden, where some genius put a huge table full of pinecones, and my shy child played spontaneously with another kid for the very first time. Later, we'd hang out under this mighty willow next to the stream, where we developed elaborate leaf-boating strategies. When kids whine that they're "bored," try answering, "Good! That's when you figure out something interesting to do!" And then, having secured the matches and the cutlery, walk away.
No to some things, yes to others. It was "no" to GameBoy, and, sadly, to just "going outside." (This is 21st-century Brooklyn, not Sixties suburbia.) But whenever possible, we said "yes" to takeovers of the kitchen table for miniature zoos; to paint, clay, and glue; to dress-up raids on my closet, within reason; and to garden excavations for worm and pillbug husbandry. Daughter and her BFF were particularly obsessed with Beanies, whose world could take over ours at any moment (as for this rock concert).
Acccording to psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, “Play is just a natural thing that animals do and humans do, but somehow we’ve driven it out of kids.” We can't drive it back in, even with "ultimate block parties." What we can do is...nothing. "Play is the work of childhood," Aunt Valeska used to say. Is it really so hard to let kids get on with their work?
Images: Edward Gorey, The Gashlycrumb Tinies, available from Edward Gorey House.