Monday, May 21, 2007

Let the Kids Play

Steve posted last summer on The Dangerous Book for Boys and I have been seeing it cited more and more in the news and the blogosphere. There seems to be a gathering movement in favor of more traditional unstructured play for children. The NY Times weighs in on the subject in a recent piece. I was appalled to learn from it that there are actually associations named the National Institute for Play and the American Association for the Child's Right to Play. I'm not sure exactly what that says about us as a society.


Mark Churchill said...

It may be worse than you think. The American Association for the Child's Right to Play is just the national affiliate of the International Association for the Child's Right to Play. Apparently US society isn't the only one struggling to keep academics in balance with the need for free time and unstructured play.

My wife teaches child development courses at the University of Nebraska, and as it happens she just recently returned from a conference entitles "Play Matters" co-hosted by The Association for the Study of Play (TASP) and the International Association for the Child's Right to Play (IAP). TASP is primarily an academic/research organization, whereas IAP is more of an advocacy group, but there is quite a bit of crossover between the two.

I too am appalled that there is a need for play advocacy groups, but I'm glad they exist. Free time within the school day has been dwindling for years, due partly (but not necessarily entirely) to the emphasis on test scores exemplified by the No Child Left Behind program. At one point the Atlanta school district apparently banned recess entirely; they were eventually persuaded by groups like the IAP (and presumably by parents with sense) to restore recess. [Note: Physical education is not the same as recess, and not an adequate substitute for it, a point with which even the nation's PE teachers agree.]

The problem isn't just with schools, though. Between over-scheduling, concern over issues of liability, and the loss of "wild" land to suburban sprawl, it's hard for many of today's urban and suburban kids to even find time or space for unstructured play of the exploratory kind we enjoyed as kids. The omnipresence of electronic gadgetry doesn't help, either, as it removes many of the incentives (good old-fashioned healthy boredom) that might otherwise get kids outside.

I'll see if I can persuade Susan (a member of the American Association for the Child's Right to Play, incidentally) to post here.

Anonymous said...

The Colbert author interview.

Matt Mullenix said...

"CORY ABATE-SHEN, 41, of Warren, N.J., cited a tinge of nostalgia as one reason she tried to teach the playmates of her twin 6-year-olds, David and Philip, to leap through hopscotch courts, shimmy in hula hoops, and chase each other around the lawn..."

My own twin six year olds are pretty adept at the above activities, but I admit that my wife and I "manage" them too much even for our own tastes. We would never have put up with the kind of oversight our own children "enjoy."

Why do we do it? We don't really know. I suspect that the structure of our neighborhood has something to do with our abundance of caution---another HT to New Urbanism. There are no sidewalks, and although there are plenty of same-age friends in the 'hood, they all live on what amount to little islands accessible only by travelling alongside the automobiles of office commuters, hurrying home.

It is frankly stressful to walk across the neighborhood to our friends' homes; the rule of thumb for most behind the wheel seemed to be: "If I don't hit you, what's your problem?"

Don't worry. I am not even convincing myself with this argument. I know it's lame. But there is something to it nonetheless and that something is jsut a fraction of the problem at hand.

Susan Churchill said...

As do Matt and his family, Mark and I also struggle with how much freedom to give our daughter. The fear of letting children outside by themselves is a fairly recent phenomenon. For most of us, if we think back to our own childhoods, our parents let us roam freely around the neighborhood until dark (or even later). Our children are missing what was a fundamental part of our own childhood.

The need for advocacy groups of children's right to play becomes more apparent to me as I work in the area of early childhood. Many Kindergarten classrooms have very little (if any) time set aside for children's free play time. In preschool settings, teachers are asked by parents why the children are "only playing". Our society has placed such an emphasis on achievement that children (even before formal schooling) are no longer allowed to be children.

Most of the college students that I work with will be elementary and preschool teachers, and an alarming trend that my colleagues and I are seeing is that these students DO NOT know how to play with children. We must actively spend time talking about and modeling how to play with young children. Many of the young women (and a few young men) that I work with don't seem to have a sense of how to have fun and relax; even with a group of 4-year-olds. Instead they concentrate on "teaching" the alphabet, numbers, colors, etc.

Children who are playing will learn what they need to learn. But even more importantly, they will be playing.

Noah Schroeder said...

The sad part is, at least in my area, schools have outlawed running on the playground, touching other students, as well as games where balls are thrown at other kids, such as kickball. The sad fact is while kids would love to play these games, they are punished in schools for it. At least thats the way it is at the elementary school I went to.

Heidi the Hick said...

Now I feel so much better about letting my kids build an obstacle course in the back yard with holes and hills and things to ride a bike over...

I can't relate to any of this really, because I grew up on a farm where there weren't threats of strangers but rather warnings about dying under a tractor or other machinery. Still impending doom, but different. And there was no walking down the street to a friend's house because you don't walk down a highway with tractor-trailers.

I still haven't adjusted to life in a subdivision, HOWEVER I've always been a very firm believer in chasing the kids outside and letting them do their own thing. It bugs me so bad when other kids come over and they're always hanging off of me and wanting me to direct what they're doing.

They need to be allowed to play, in such a way that they aren't aware of the watchful eye on them. It's the only way they learn to solve things on their own and develop a love of discovery.

Now if only the town would let me keep a couple of ponies in the yard...