For Today’s Kids, Is Playtime Over?

You know that childhood play has become a serious business when there’s a peer-reviewed journal dedicated to studying it. According to an article in the Atlantic, the Journal of Play reports, with all due gravitas, that kids have been playing with decreasing frequency since 1955. The disappearance of playtime is making it more difficult for kids to develop into “confident and competent” adults.

Some definitions are in order. By “play,” the researchers mean “free play,” or “play a child undertakes him- or her-self and which is self-directed and an end in itself, rather than part of some organized activity.” A study comparing 6-to-8-year-olds in 1981 to their counterparts in 1997 found that the more recent cohort “spent less time in play and had less free time.” The 1997 kids also “spent 18 percent more time at school, 145 percent more time doing school work, and 168 percent more time shopping with parents.”

This trend is likely to become even more pronounced as “preschools and kindergartens have become more academically-oriented and many schools have even eliminated recess.”

What strikes me most about these developments is the way they manage to satisfy everyone’s aspirations even as they realize everyone’s worst fears. These days, you can’t click a link without reading someone’s rant about how kids are spoiled, pampered, soft as a gray day in Dublin. They need discipline, unsparing exposure to life’s cruel Darwinian reality. This sort of pundit usually ends by telling the reader how, in his or her day, a Rubik‘s Cube could double as a hand grenade in a game of “Beirut Peacekeepers.”

Apparently, nobody considered that discipline comes with a flip side. Making kids competitive, inculcating them early on with an adult sense of responsibility, may require some micromanaging, which translates to a kind of hovering. If this kind of structuring and supervision pays off in the form of improved test scores and a new eagerness to please authority, its cost may be a general dampening of youthful hardiness and blithesome spirits. Gone forever are the days when “Algebra” could be a fit name for a friendly mule. If today’s precocious and driven ten-year-olds name their mules anything, they must name them “Calc” and “Diff.”

In a phrase that might resonate with Journal of Play researchers, 19th-century French social critic Hippolyte Taine remembers being treated at his lycee like “a horse between the shafts of a cart.” As an antidote, re recommended students be permitted to govern themselves as he imagined students in British public schools did. In such a society, he wrote, “…human nature is treated…with more respect and is less interfered with. Under the influence of an English education, boys are like the trees in an English garden; under that of our own, like the pleached and pollarded trees of Versailles.”

I’m not sure how well that model would work here, today. Nineteenth-century British public schools were not meant to prepare students to move upward in society; a good many of them held a seat at the top by right of birth. Poor academic performance could do little to knock them down. The relatively few strivers who made it in were under a certain cloud of suspicion; their failure was not thought to be society’s loss, or to represent a betrayal of its promises. In such circumstances, neglect really could look benign.

In the District of Columbia’s archdiocesan newsletter, Msgr. Charles Pope writes that college tuitions are becoming too expensive, and the college prep educational track — the one in which students are driven like cart horses — too crowded. Although he recognizes that a college degree is now a prerequisite even for manual jobs like car repair, he sees no sense in this. “For the parish business manager a degree and or significant professional experience is essential,” writes Pope. “But for a secretary who types, answers phones, keep records, and makes ordinary use of Word, Excel, and Powerpoint, is a college degree necessary?”

No disrespect to Pope, but the man writes as optimistically as he is named. Actually, I’m not sure “optimism” is quite the right word. Let’s say employers did make a practice of offering the most basic types of clerical work to applicants without college degrees. Even if they didn’t seize on the applicants’ lack of credentials as an excuse to pay as little as they could reasonably manage to do, most would bar them from promotion into more remunerative work; Pope himself concedes this. What he wants, in short, is for a sizable segment of American citizens to commit themselves at an early age to jobs free of prestige and lives circumscribed by relative penury. He wants them to quash their ambitions.

That might be possible in certain societies, but not in the sorts of societies most Americans would consent to build. Alain de Botton praises Zurich as a city where “citizens may lose some of their ambition for personal glory” and where “simply being an ordinary citizen can seem like an adequate destiny.” What makes mediocrity so arcadian is a comfortable public sphere that includes transport, housing, health care, etc. “In Switzerland’s largest city, the urge to own a car and avoid sharing a bus or train with strangers “ diminishes when “for only a few francs, an efficient, stately tramway will transport one across the city at a level of comfort an emperor might have envied.”

Writ large enough, that concern for the public sphere, for the comfort of the mediocre, becomes socialism, at least in the American imagination. Careers have been made spotting and attacking it. Perhaps men of goodwill like Pope would like to see those concerns overridden, but I can’t imagine it happening without a mighty pushback. Till then, I’d say — if I were a parent — “Giddyap, Barron’s Guide. Get my kid the hell out of here.”

  • Luna R.

    Umm, last paragraph, first line, between “the” and “sphere”… XYZ

  • NYCBobby

    Max:
    Your writing is awesome. Love the last two pieces. I often will see a kid being pitched to by his father who has a basket filled with baseballs. After the kid has hit the balls all over, the father goes and fetches them so to resume pitching. Say what? My dad never pitched me balls AND if he ever would have I’d be getting them. I don’t want to sound like Andy Rooney but I wonder what sort of grown up that kid is going to be like. My friends and I played with each other with virtually no parental guidance. I’ll admit we’re lucky to be alive.

  • NYCBobby

    Max:
    Your writing is awesome. Love the last two pieces. I often will see a kid being pitched to by his father who has a basket filled with baseballs. After the kid has hit the balls all over, the father goes and fetches them so to resume pitching. Say what? My dad never pitched me balls AND if he ever would have I’d be getting them. I don’t want to sound like Andy Rooney but I wonder what sort of grown up that kid is going to be like. My friends and I played with each other with virtually no parental guidance. I’ll admit we’re lucky to be alive.

  • JABSE

    Max:
    I have four children and the oldest and youngest are very bright, kinetic learners (24 and 11) who do horribly in school, hate to read, and love to be around people. Their parents (moi) and their siblings watch them in bemusement functioning in the world. My son is a bellman at the Gaylord Palms Resort and I’m pretty sure my daughter will end up in sales making millions.

    The point I think that Monseignor Pope was making is that it doesn’t seem right to saddle ourselves and our children with the huge amounts of debt/investment it costs to send every single child for a university education (and God help those who can’t get in) just so that they can finally become the mechanic (philosophy degree), car salesman (political science), secretary (business), and hair stylist (graphic arts) they wanted to become all along. (Actual kids I know born since 1987.)

    Just sayin’

  • JABSE

    Max:
    I have four children and the oldest and youngest are very bright, kinetic learners (24 and 11) who do horribly in school, hate to read, and love to be around people. Their parents (moi) and their siblings watch them in bemusement functioning in the world. My son is a bellman at the Gaylord Palms Resort and I’m pretty sure my daughter will end up in sales making millions.

    The point I think that Monseignor Pope was making is that it doesn’t seem right to saddle ourselves and our children with the huge amounts of debt/investment it costs to send every single child for a university education (and God help those who can’t get in) just so that they can finally become the mechanic (philosophy degree), car salesman (political science), secretary (business), and hair stylist (graphic arts) they wanted to become all along. (Actual kids I know born since 1987.)

    Just sayin’

  • Melody

    There has to be more choices than a four-year college degree, and being doomed to work a dead end job forever. In fact some people with baccalaureate degrees get stuck in a dead end job. A good friend of ours got an engineering degree, barely making it through the program, because his parents thought it was his ticket to a prestigious (read “white collar”) job; even though what he wanted to be was an auto mechanic. Well he was not successful in an engineering career; and ended up working a warehouse job that just barely pays the bills, and he’s praying he can last there until retirement. Different people have different gifts.
    Those who have the aptitude and desire should go for a college degree. But we shouldn’t treat a degree from a vocational technical school as if it were somehow second class. Many graduates of those programs get into well-paying and highly technical careers. As a society we need to do a better job helping nearly 60% of our young people who are not going to attain a traditional college degree to find a career path.

  • Melody

    There has to be more choices than a four-year college degree, and being doomed to work a dead end job forever. In fact some people with baccalaureate degrees get stuck in a dead end job. A good friend of ours got an engineering degree, barely making it through the program, because his parents thought it was his ticket to a prestigious (read “white collar”) job; even though what he wanted to be was an auto mechanic. Well he was not successful in an engineering career; and ended up working a warehouse job that just barely pays the bills, and he’s praying he can last there until retirement. Different people have different gifts.
    Those who have the aptitude and desire should go for a college degree. But we shouldn’t treat a degree from a vocational technical school as if it were somehow second class. Many graduates of those programs get into well-paying and highly technical careers. As a society we need to do a better job helping nearly 60% of our young people who are not going to attain a traditional college degree to find a career path.

  • Nina Grimball Evans

    I worked at a Day Care in the mid 80′s to early 90′s. So my little 18m olds are now twenty somethings and out of college most likely. As a principle, we were committed to free play time twice a day for 2 hours or more(in the afternoon whilst waiting for parents to come and collect). We already knew and recognized the lack of unsupervised play. We could not adhere to an unsupervised anything but we did let the little ones play “pretend” with little input from us. We drew the line at playing guns and kill’em dead (it was a church day care afterall). This was discouraged vigorously but it was harder to discourage the play of Teenage Ninja Turtles or Power Rangers. I came away with some impressions about little boys’ and little girls’ play patterns. Boys like to stake their claim to power acquisition thru feats of physical prowess. Girls would compete up until it was apparent that winning the race, the fight, the eating bugs, etc likely meant no more boys would ask you to compete with them. Girls then found more subtle forms of power acquisition. If kids tend to mimic what they see at home(play house, mommy/daddy images) they are acting out what they deemed most powerful for them and cement the pattern to heart. At the core of child’s play is what they perceive as what means power to them. In other words, what their parents pattern to them. Play is very serious and worthy of observing….if you want to know what your kids think of you and your parenting.

  • Nina Grimball Evans

    I worked at a Day Care in the mid 80′s to early 90′s. So my little 18m olds are now twenty somethings and out of college most likely. As a principle, we were committed to free play time twice a day for 2 hours or more(in the afternoon whilst waiting for parents to come and collect). We already knew and recognized the lack of unsupervised play. We could not adhere to an unsupervised anything but we did let the little ones play “pretend” with little input from us. We drew the line at playing guns and kill’em dead (it was a church day care afterall). This was discouraged vigorously but it was harder to discourage the play of Teenage Ninja Turtles or Power Rangers. I came away with some impressions about little boys’ and little girls’ play patterns. Boys like to stake their claim to power acquisition thru feats of physical prowess. Girls would compete up until it was apparent that winning the race, the fight, the eating bugs, etc likely meant no more boys would ask you to compete with them. Girls then found more subtle forms of power acquisition. If kids tend to mimic what they see at home(play house, mommy/daddy images) they are acting out what they deemed most powerful for them and cement the pattern to heart. At the core of child’s play is what they perceive as what means power to them. In other words, what their parents pattern to them. Play is very serious and worthy of observing….if you want to know what your kids think of you and your parenting.


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