When I was growing up, parents commonly told their kids to “go out and play.” It wasn’t a request, either—it was more like an order. Our parents expected us to devise our own games. We flipped baseball cards, rode bikes, played cops and robbers using sticks or even our fingers for guns. And if we sometimes took silly risks and got into scrapes, well, that was how we learned to look after ourselves.
Things are different today. Parents now use cell phones to keep tabs on their children. Many register their kids for organized sports so that they will play under adult supervision.The amount of time kids spend in organized sports has, in fact, doubled over the past two decades. Meanwhile, kids have lost 12 hours of free time a week, including eight hours of unstructured play and outdoor activities.
David Elkind, professor of child development at Tufts University and author of The Hurried Child, laments in his latest book the disappearance of spontaneous, self-initiated play from kids’ lives. In the tradition of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, Elkind argues that kids learn about themselves and their world through play. When we take away time from playful learning, we deprive kids of important opportunities for emotional, intellectual, and moral growth.
Elkind blames “parent angst” for much of the problem. Contemporary parents, he believes, think of education as a race, and they train their kids for it from a very young age. He once actually observed a mother showing her 8-month-old flash cards with pictures of the presidents on them. Although the kid was squirming, the mother kept at it until, finally, the kid threw up, which was what Elkind also felt like doing.
Instead of this kind of hyperparenting, Elkind advocates a more lighthearted, laid-back approach. “Children can play safely without adult organization,” he reminds us; “they have done so as long as people have been on earth.”
Anyone who grew up playing army in the woods or hopscotch on the sidewalk is likely to be receptive to Elkind’s message. We may not have had the computers, iPods, and other high-tech toys of today’s kids, but we had something better. We had freedom.
Howard Good is coordinator of the journalism program at the State University of New York at New Paltz. His latest book is Mis-Education in Schools: Beyond the Slogans and Double-Talk (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2007).
A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2007 edition of Teacher as The Power of Play