Saturday, May 17, 2008

Play vs the 'long, hard slog'

From Rosa Brooks at the LA Times:
For younger readers, I'll explain this archaic concept. It worked like this: The child or children in the house -- as long as they were over age 4 or so -- went to the door, opened it, and ... went outside. They braved the neighborhood pedophile just waiting to pounce, the rusty nails just waiting to be stepped on, the trees just waiting to be fallen out of, and they "played."

"Play," incidentally, is a mysterious activity children engage in when not compelled to spend every hour under adult supervision, taking soccer or piano lessons or practicing vocabulary words with computerized flashcards..., for most middle-class American children, "going out to play" has gone the way of the dodo, the typewriter and the eight-track tape. From 1981 to 1997, for instance, University of Michigan time-use studies show that 3- to 5-year-olds lost an average of 501 minutes of unstructured playtime each week; 6- to 8-year-olds lost an average of 228 minutes. (On the other hand, kids now do more organized activities and have more homework, the lucky devils!) And forget about walking to school alone. Today's kids don't walk much at all (adding to the childhood obesity problem).

Increasingly, American children are in a lose-lose situation. They're forced, prematurely, to do all the un-fun kinds of things adults do (Be over-scheduled! Have no downtime! Study! Work!). But they don't get any of the privileges of adult life: autonomy, the ability to make their own choices, use their own judgment, maybe even get interestingly lost now and then.

Somehow, we've managed to turn childhood into a long, hard slog.

She's so right. I remember my mom making me go outside when we lived on the North Platte River in Wyoming. Sometimes we would follow the river upstream for hours, climbing in the cottonwoods on the bank, playing in the mud, studying the plants and animals. We were not allowed to go in the river or drink from it, so we didn't. (Somehow my mom knew both times we did either--although finding a dead cow in the water just upstream from the drink was a very powerful deterrent.) I did not give my children that much freedom until it was too late for them to know how to take advantage of it. I see many children who would have no time in their dayplanner for such adventures. I wonder what the cultural consequences will be.

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