For Today’s Kids, Is Playtime Over?

For Today’s Kids, Is Playtime Over? October 20, 2011

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.”

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