In his new book, Children at Play: An American History, Brown University historian Howard Chudacoff gives us the following late-19th-century snapshot of a mother-daughter outing to a city park: "The older person, quietly seated beside the footpath, is half absorbed in reverie. … The other, left to her own devices, wanders contented within the limited scope, incessantly prattling to herself; now climbing an adjoining rock, now flitting like a bird from one side of the pathway to the other."
It's an entirely approving portrayal written by an educator of the period named William Wells Newell, which Chudacoff offers as a rare recognition of the importance of children's free play. But to me, and I'd wager to a lot of parents, it's all too sinkingly familiar. Yes, the kid seems happy enough. But what about that daydreaming mother—shouldn't she be turning over pine cones and acorns with her daughter, or at least talking to her once in a while? Is that mom really giving her daughter the latitude to discover nature, explore the world, think her own thoughts—or is she just lazy?
This is the question I ask myself when my kids say, "Play with me!" and all I really want to do is collapse with a good book. Alas, nothing I've read on the subject has really given me the license to blithely bury myself and send them on their way—at least, not as often as I would like. Chudacoff points out that in previous generations, mothers like me said, without agonizing, " 'Don't bother me, go and play outside.' " And there is plenty of evidence that parents shouldn't invade their kids' play, or stage-direct it, or herd them from one structured activity to the next. But real free play with your kids, when they run around and you try to catch them, or you build a fort out of blankets and couches together, or cut out paper dolls? It's pretty hard to argue that's not a pure and unadulterated good thing, if we have the patience for it.
In tracing the history of play over the American centuries, Chudacoff makes the mid-17th century sound like our own time, only better. "Adults were much less self-conscious about what types of play were appropriate for different age groups than would be the case by the time of the American Revolution," he writes. Parents and kids played the same games together: blind man's bluff, find-the-bean, cards, puzzles. Or they "whiled away the time in each other's company, talking, singing, reading, and simply being together." Later, the idyll ebbed. Lines were drawn to mark off childhood as a separate domain. The era of sobriety and duty came along, followed by educational, good-for-you play, followed by obsessive attention to safety.
Kids won a burst of autonomy in the first half of the 20th century, when there were still woods and parks at hand to roam, yet fewer chores than on the farms of yore. But parental fear and suburban development slammed the door shut again. Chudacoff cites findings from a recent survey showing that after school and on the weekends, kids on average spend only one half-hour a week in unstructured play outside, compared to 14.5 hours playing inside, and 12 more hours watching television.
Perhaps it's the move indoors that led to more calls to the adults for entertainment. At my house, inside play often seems to require aid. My sons, Eli and Simon, need my husband or me to find a crucial piece of Lego, or to construct a ramp to race their cars down. With the zealotry of future card sharps, they insist on endless hands of War or Uno or Rummy 500. Sometimes, Eli and Simon play, just the two of them. But at 7 and 4, their age difference can still be hard to span. Frankly, they just like it better when we're down on the floor with them.
When pressed, many of the parents I know will confess that they can play with their kids for about 20 minutes before they get bored or distracted. The more free-flowing the play, the more at a loss we are. "OK, what's the script?" one of my friends asks her daughter, to steel herself for a game of make-believe. There are adults who break the clueless mold, and I am hugely lucky to be married to one of them. My kids assure me that I'm good for many things, but Paul is the one they want to be Tickle Monster. His secret, I think, is that he just plays. No running upstairs to answer the phone or turn on the stove. No script needed. He's enjoying himself.
Paul seems a bit of a freak of nature when viewed in light of a recent review of the anthropological literature on adult-child play. In an article in American Anthropologist, David Lancy of Utah State University argues that mother-child play (defined as actively engaged, not just rocking or cooing) is rarely seen "when looking beyond our own society." (Fathers aren't much studied. Surprise, surprise.) Throughout history and in developing cultures, mothers are even less likely to play with their older children. Lancy's point is that we shouldn't push play on parents as "the One True Way to raise a smart, well-adjusted child," as Christopher Shea puts it in this great article for the Boston Globe.
Fair enough, I suppose, and for a minute, this looked like the justification I'd been waiting for to curl up with my book. But the reasons mothers haven't played with kids in much of the world mentioned in Lancy's article didn't speak to me. He cites high infant mortality, the acceptability of infanticide, the belief that babies are "brainless," and the need for toddlers to grow up quickly so they can help take care of the new baby. These are Third World realities, which, however understandable, just don't apply to my middle-class realm in the First. None of them are going to make me feel better about waving my kids off while I chat with another mom, instead of romping with them at the playground.
Still, I'm not going to be able to stop chatting—let's be honest. And sometimes, when I don't respond to their calls, Eli and Simon do go off together or with their friends and make up their own games. When they find an outlet for their insatiable desire to whack small bushes with sticks, for example, no adults are needed. To the contrary, we'd only get in the way. They do their thing, and I sit down and do mine.
Then usually, eventually, they call for me again. I try to remind myself how short this period of their life is. And when I hear, "Mommy, chase me!" for a few minutes at least, I get myself off the bench and run.