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The children who forgot how to play

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.

Posted on Thursday, January 6, 2011 at 10:43AM by Registered CommenterBrenda from Brooklyn in , , | Comments9 Comments

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Reader Comments (9)

BRAVO !!! I could not agree more. As the mother of five teenagers who have lost the ability to think for themselves and have gained the ability to sit in front of a television for hours on end watching horrible TV shows that don't even make sense, I am so glad to see that I am not the only one who thinks that enough is enough. I really do fear that we are raising an entire generation of idiots who can't think for themselves. I don't have many years left to try to turn my kids around, but I am going to try.
January 6, 2011 at 01:17PM | Unregistered CommenterGina aka Slappy
Excellent excellent post! profound in it's simplicity, and sad at the same time. But so hopeful, so very hopeful! One of the things I love about where I live is that I can send my kids "outside to play" there is a big old tree at the end of our road that is just awesome for climbing, and my neighbor's dog is our favorite "recreation director"!

You inspired a blog post of my own! Thank you!
January 6, 2011 at 01:21PM | Unregistered CommenterMilk & Honey Momma
I agree 100%!! My two younger kids (3 & 4) have recently gotten a bit crazy with each other and by 5:00 pm each day need more concrete suggestions on what options they have to do, but I was thrilled to overhear them playing with playdough in the kitchen (while I was reading in the living room... aaaahhhh). Not only were they carrying on a pleasant conversation with each other, but they were pretending they were their grandparents- changing their voices when they talked to each other and giggling something fierce.

Just playing. Nice.
January 6, 2011 at 01:22PM | Unregistered Commentermorninglightmama
As someone who is working to restore play in elementary schools in low-income, urban communities, I enjoyed the NYTimes article. It's great to see your examples of promoting play, including allowing your child to experience boredom and make new discoveries. I also discovered that children from low-income families often have video games, TV and more! After working with some of these families for a while, I theorize that the parents often scrap up the little money they have to splurge on fancy gadgets as a status item. It's just too bad that frequently these children learn to love the screen more than their own imagination.
January 6, 2011 at 02:18PM | Unregistered CommenterBeth
Right on! I totally agree with everything you have said. So many of the campers that we give scholarships to are so nervous at first to go to camps and be without their electronics for a few week. But, when we here from them after their experience they often say that free time - where they just got to hang out and play on their own - was their absolute favorite part of camp.
January 6, 2011 at 03:39PM | Unregistered CommenterSara @ SCOPE
<i>(This is 21st-century Brooklyn, not Sixties suburbia.)</i>

And? The crime rate in the city is at 1960s levels. When I was a child in Brooklyn in the 80s (when crime was at its height!) I "just went outside" all the time - to go to the store, to cross the street and visit a friend, to hang out (down the ladder, up the ladder) in my backyard/on my roof.

As far as recess goes, btw, if it ever comes up at your school you should point out (repeatedly!) that daily recess boosts test scores, and that 15 minutes of recess time = 20 minutes of extra focus in class.
January 6, 2011 at 11:52PM | Unregistered CommenterUly
I teach a pre kindergarten class at a school where the director pretty much lets us do what we want as long as the school doesn't burn down so after the academics this includes hours of free play using counting dogs and dinosaurs to play in the miniature houses and barns up to 3 hours of outside time where the kids are let lose to play how they want as long as there is no karate. Normally they play monster and chase each other around the playground. My very few attempts at organized games have fail these 5 year olds do not understand games with structured rules. Luckily it is January and 80 degrees here so we are always outside and when it rains like it did today the teachers have a toilet paper fight with the kids and run around the school with the kids. We can mostly do this because we have so few kids in the school and it is a small building. and by not constantly having to entertain a group of kids I am able to spend more one on one time with kids that need help with stuff or who just want to cuddle so its win win here it also helps that all but 2 staff members are in there early twentys so we have more energy. At other schools I've been at they had strict 30 minutes of outside time rules and we had to constantly have structured activities goings especially at pick up times since one director stated that parents did not want to pick up a dirty child from the playground. I've yet to have a parent a parent complain that their child had lots of outside time. As a result of all of this free play time these kids had a pick up game of leap from today no teachers involved.
January 7, 2011 at 01:18AM | Unregistered CommenterJenFL
Well said and brilliant! To lose so much,gain so little, at such a monetary expense. I think we should all play more. How about a playdate? ;0)
January 7, 2011 at 11:01PM | Unregistered CommenterArtist Karen
This is right, play among kids is very important in their growing and developing years. If adults look for their own recreation, they should consider the right to play of kids.
January 21, 2011 at 11:51AM | Unregistered CommenterJim

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