The new play movement.

Keeping an eye on kids and parents.
June 20 2007 5:12 PM

The Paradox of Play

Are kids today having enough fun?

Children playing marbles. Click image to expand.
Children playing marbles

"I go to school," my 3-year-old son says in a favorite home video from a decade and a half ago, the product of my brother-in-law's talent for hiding his camera in the right places. Ben is chatting up his 6-year-old cousin as they sit side by side, happily drawing. Eliza continues to color, aware that he's casting sidelong glances at what she's producing on her paper while he scribbles on his. "No, you don't," she informs him. "You go to day care." "No, I don't go to kay care," he insists, mispronouncing as he copies her drawing motions as best he can. "I go to ABC school."

This scene could be held up as an object lesson in the stresses endured by the "hurried child" in a high-tech age—or it could serve as evidence of wholesome childhood play, and why kids should have more of it. On the one hand, Ben and Eliza, left free to putter, are acting like precocious "organization kids," comparing institutional credentials—when they could be creating crazy drawings and discoursing imaginatively about them. On the other hand, here are two kids busily honing their fine motor skills and eagerly endorsing studiousness—all without any coercion or desire to impress an adult. They're in their own little world, blissfully unaware that they're being taped.

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Our era of superachievement angst and No Child Left Behind duress is not the first time adults have worried that academic pressures are prematurely crowding out the kind of hands-on playtime that kids love. It will also not be the last time that the crusade to restore the primacy of play runs the risk of eroding the very playfulness the crusaders are eager to see more of. The paradox of the endeavor seems all but unavoidable. Play advocates bolster their case by proclaiming play's social, emotional, and cognitive benefits, as David Elkind has recently done in The Power of Play: How Spontaneous, Imaginative Activities Lead to Happier, Healthier Children. Yet the more successful such advocates are in their instrumental defense of play, the further they stray from an appreciation of play as precisely the opposite—a pursuit that serves children's own (not always obviously constructive) purposes, rather than the didactic designs of their elders.

It's a tension that play advocates of the past sometimes recognized, as Howard P. Chudacoff takes care to note as he traces the fate of playtime over the centuries in his forthcoming Children at Play: An American History. In the aftermath of the "playground movement" early in the 20th century, for example, reformers were forced to face up to the problem: Kids weren't flocking to the new enclosures that were supposed to lure them away from dangerous gutter games (favored especially, they felt, by immigrant children). As a boy from Worcester, Mass., explained, "I can't go to the playgrounds now. They get on my nerves with so many men and women around telling you what to do." Some reformers agonized about the adult intrusions, among them John Dewey's wife, Evelyn, in a co-authored book in 1934:

We have cut peepholes in fences and spied on children at play, have written theses and treatises about what we saw, have created organizations about their play life, have made artificial places for them to play in and set organizers and supervisors over them. We have seized on their love of play and capitalized and commercialized it.

Not that she was about to urge that grown-ups back off. Experts concurred that the loss of natural play opportunities in an urbanized world of smaller families and a "push-button civilization" meant that play, alas, could no longer be left to kids. Facilitators were essential. The growing ranks of psychological professionals and toy manufacturers were ready to oblige. According to the enlightened new culture of childhood, play was not only crucial to socialization, but also important for the nurturing of imagination—which soon inspired more concerted efforts to feed kids' appetite for fantasy (by Walt Disney, among others). Thanks to an emphasis on preserving an environment sheltered from the adult world, various historians have suggested, children until the 1950s still had plenty of freedom to maneuver. They were not yet totally at the mercy of the hovering gaze of elders; the new panoply of approved toys could be used in inventive, unapproved ways. You could say that paternalistic preaching left room for subversive practice.

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