Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Let Them Play (redux)

Another great article on the perils of not letting kids have time for unsupervised play (supervised play isn't really even play) appeared at First Things. CHILDREN WHO NEVER PLAY by Michael J. Lewis

In the last generation this sort of free and unsupervised play lost ground, along with those institutions that sustained it: platoon-sized families, stay-at-home moms, and multiple “eyes on the street.” Its place has been taken by the play date, negotiated in advance with the kind of deliberation required by the marriage of a Hapsburg and a Tudor. No longer the posse of shrieking kids, hurtling around the block, but instead the purposefully organized activities of contemporary childhood: tee-ball and soccer camp, swim class and 5k runs—the interstices filled with the distractions of the DVD and Nintendo 3DS.

For children who know only supervised play, there is no conflict that is not resolved by an adult. One never learns to negotiate and resolve conflicts with one’s peers. This was not always an amiable or tear-free process; playground justice was just as harsh and swift as medieval justice. But it was justice, and even that most brutal aspect of playground life in the 1960s, the afterschool fistfight, was regulated by the standing circle of classmates who yelled out encouragement or insults, and who stopped the proceedings when it went too far. In all of this was a restless testing of the limits of freedom, with little feints and modest rebellions. These often ended unhappily, especially when the offending instrument was a stick, stone, or pack of matches, but here were those first lessons in overstepping the bounds that seem essential for the development of an individual conscience.

More and more, parents feel obliged to steer their children toward those activities that might have a future payoff, already thinking ahead to that harrowing ivy league gauntlet that Deresiewicz describes. Such is the instrumental view, play as a means to an end and not an end in itself. But as any cultivator of plants knows, to promote one trait can cause others inadvertently to atrophy. One thinks of the modern tomato, indestructible yet flavorless, or the modern rose, exquisite and almost completely devoid of scent. And the process of producing the well-socialized, well-tempered contemporary child has inadvertently blunted some of those qualities that can only be acquired, as it were, when no one is looking. Chief of these is initiative—the capacity to size up a situation and take quick decisive action. Only those children who play under minimal supervision—“free range kids” in the happy phrase of Lenore Skenazy—get the chance to develop this sense of dash or pluck. They do this in the process of deciding what to play, establishing the rules, choosing sides, and resolving the inevitable dispute. In short, by acting as miniature citizens with autonomy rather than as passive subjects to be directed.

This is something that I've been talking about for years. To take but one example, I learned far more playing pick-up games with the kids in our neighborhood than I ever did in organized sports. For far too many children today, everything is organized and they never get to experience what it’s like to work out rules and manage disagreements on their own.

Our boys not only have a stay-at-home mom, but because they’re homeschooled they’re stay-at-home kids. We’re fortunate that there is another family with similar circumstances in our neighborhood and with kids close in age to our own. So they do get some opportunities for the sort of unsupervised play that more and more have people have come to understand is critical to their development as individuals. It’s nothing compared to what we had during our childhood, but it’s more than many of their peers will ever experience.