Play — or Pay
Two interesting articles caught my eye today. First in “The Serious Need for Play” Scientific American points out that children and animals that aren’t given opportunities for loose, unstructured free play when they are young grow up to be anxious, socially maladjusted adults. Then in “The End of Solitude,” The Chronicle of Higher Education discusses how technology is taking away our ability to be alone (h/t to Matt Mullinex of Querencia for this one).
Two seemingly unrelated articles – but I believe that they’re both related to the same issue – the diminishing importance of nature in our lives.
As I’ve written here before, I am concerned that we are creating a world where young people prefer to learn about nature though Podcasts, interactive computer games, television and surfing the web rather than by actually experiencing it.
Most psychologists agree that play affords benefits that last through adulthood, but they do not always agree on the extent to which a lack of play harms kids-particularly because, in the past, few children grew up without ample frolicking time. But today free play may be losing its standing as a staple of youth. According to a paper published in 2005 in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, children’s free-play time dropped by a quarter between 1981 and 1997. Concerned about getting their kids into the right colleges, parents are sacrificing playtime for more structured activities.
But kids playsoccer, Scrabble and the sousaphone-so why are experts concerned that these games and more structured activities are eating into free play? Certainly games with rules are fun and sources of learning experiences-they may foster better social skills and group cohesion, for instance, says Anthony D. Pellegrini, an educational psychologist at the University of Minnesota. But, Pellegrini explains, “games have a priori rules-set up in advance and followed. Play, on the other hand, does not have a priori rules, so it affords more creative responses.”
Free play is natural play. It’s playing with other kids when there aren’t any adults around to supervise or intervene. It’s not a soccer game organized by rules, coaches and referees. And it’s not Guitar Hero where rules of rhythm, pitch and imitation control the action even when you’re playing alone.
Free play is crucial in developing healthy social skills in all social animals. You can’t learn how to deal with bullies – or learn not to be a bully when there’s always a grownup there to butt in. And the idea of taking turns becomes a lot clearer when your skill at it directly relates to how often you get to participate in games.
When I was a kid, most of our free play time took place in nature. An overgrown vacant lot. The wooded area behind our school. A stretch of marshy land along the lake. A cow pasture. Those were ourplaces. Places we were free from adult interruptions and interference. Places where we did the stupid things that taught us a lot of the most important lessons of our lives. No helmets, kneepads, referees or rulebooks required.
Was it safe? Hell no, it wasn’t safe. I got a concussion, I broke my hand, I broke two ribs, lost my big toenail and ended up with stitches more times than I can remember. I got my feelings hurt and I did stupid, mean-spirited things that hurt other kids’ feelings. But those physical and mental hurts healed and in the process my friends and I learned things we couldn’t have learned anywhere else.
And because those free, empty places were an integral part of my life, I learned how to spend time alone. A skill that I fear will soon be numbered among lost arts like root cellaring and rhetoric. Deresiewicz writes:
Technology is taking away our privacy and our concentration, but it is also taking away our ability to be alone. Though I shouldn’t say taking away. We are doing this to ourselves; we are discarding these riches as fast as we can.
How did this happen?
…Urbanization gave way to suburbanization, and with it the universal threat of loneliness. What technologies of transportation exacerbated – we could live farther and farther apart – technologies of communication redressed – we could bring ourselves closer and closer together. Or at least, so we have imagined. The first of these technologies, the first simulacrum of proximity, was the telephone. “Reach out and touch someone.” But through the 70s and 80s, our isolation grew. Suburbs, sprawling ever farther, became exurbs. Families grew smaller or splintered apart, mothers left the home to work. The electronic hearth became the television in every room. Even in childhood, certainly in adolescence, we were each trapped inside our own cocoon. Soaring crime rates, and even more sharply escalating rates of moral panic, pulled children off the streets. The idea that you could go outside and run around the neighborhood with your friends, once unquestionable, has now become unthinkable. The child who grew up between the world wars as part of an extended family within a tight-knit urban community became the grandparent of a kid who sat alone in front of a big television, in a big house, on a big lot. We were lost in space.
Lost in an alien space of our own creation, we put our faith in regulation and technology, thinking they’d save us. But instead of saving us they’re retarding our social skills, reducing our ability to cope with stress and anxiety, eliminating our opportunities for introspection, making us less flexible and creative — and creating in us a disturbing sense of uneasiness with nature. Our access to places where we can play freely or enjoy solitude shrinks as we become subject to increasing levels of rules and regulations. Will we continue on this path and develop new values as we become more like our new electronic companions or will we find ways to rediscover the values of our ancient ones?