Tuesday, October 01, 2013

children are suffering a severe deficit of play...,

aeonmagazine | When I was a child in the 1950s, my friends and I had two educations. We had school (which was not the big deal it is today), and we also had what I call a hunter-gather education. We played in mixed-age neighbourhood groups almost every day after school, often until dark. We played all weekend and all summer long. We had time to explore in all sorts of ways, and also time to become bored and figure out how to overcome boredom, time to get into trouble and find our way out of it, time to daydream, time to immerse ourselves in hobbies, and time to read comics and whatever else we wanted to read rather than the books assigned to us. What I learnt in my hunter-gatherer education has been far more valuable to my adult life than what I learnt in school, and I think others in my age group would say the same if they took time to think about it.

For more than 50 years now, we in the United States have been gradually reducing children’s opportunities to play, and the same is true in many other countries. In his book Children at Play: An American History (2007), Howard Chudacoff refers to the first half of the 20th century as the ‘golden age’ of children’s free play. By about 1900, the need for child labour had declined, so children had a good deal of free time. But then, beginning around 1960 or a little before, adults began chipping away at that freedom by increasing the time that children had to spend at schoolwork and, even more significantly, by reducing children’s freedom to play on their own, even when they were out of school and not doing homework. Adult-directed sports for children began to replace ‘pickup’ games; adult-directed classes out of school began to replace hobbies; and parents’ fears led them, ever more, to forbid children from going out to play with other kids, away from home, unsupervised. There are lots of reasons for these changes but the effect, over the decades, has been a continuous and ultimately dramatic decline in children’s opportunities to play and explore in their own chosen ways.

Over the same decades that children’s play has been declining, childhood mental disorders have been increasing. It’s not just that we’re seeing disorders that we overlooked before. Clinical questionnaires aimed at assessing anxiety and depression, for example, have been given in unchanged form to normative groups of schoolchildren in the US ever since the 1950s. Analyses of the results reveal a continuous, essentially linear, increase in anxiety and depression in young people over the decades, such that the rates of what today would be diagnosed as generalised anxiety disorder and major depression are five to eight times what they were in the 1950s. Over the same period, the suicide rate for young people aged 15 to 24 has more than doubled, and that for children under age 15 has quadrupled.

The decline in opportunity to play has also been accompanied by a decline in empathy and a rise in narcissism, both of which have been assessed since the late 1970s with standard questionnaires given to normative samples of college students. Empathy refers to the ability and tendency to see from another person’s point of view and experience what that person experiences. Narcissism refers to inflated self-regard, coupled with a lack of concern for others and an inability to connect emotionally with others. A decline of empathy and a rise in narcissism are exactly what we would expect to see in children who have little opportunity to play socially. Children can’t learn these social skills and values in school, because school is an authoritarian, not a democratic setting. School fosters competition, not co-operation; and children there are not free to quit when others fail to respect their needs and wishes. Fist tap Dale.


Nakajima Kikka said...

I'll bet current livestock management protocols don't work very well on Sudbury Valley students.

What kind of parents do these kids have? As in, how do these kids' parents think about life, approach life, in general? Is there a more-or-less common way of thinking about life among the parents, or is there no discernable pattern? Is a certain parental way of thinking about life required in order for a child to do well at a place like Sudbury?

CNu said...

I'm going to go with parents who recalled what was most important in their own upbringing, but, who have not for a variety reasons managed to domicile in a neighborhood in which their children have safe and ready access to a large population of other children and a stimulating and comparatively safe environment in which to play with the same?

My autopoetic upbringing in my home neighborhood insulated me against any and everything that the world presented me with. It ensured my competence, self-esteem, and provided me with a host of self-generated and friend-generated play and adventures. I'll give a concrete example. When I was 12, my parents sent me to stay the better part of the summer with my father's cousin in the Bronx. I don't know if it would be possible to fall any further off the turnip truck. Yet, no one thought anything of my leaving their house first thing in the morning and not getting back until well after dark. That degree of unsupervised freedom is virtually unthinkable nowadays.

Nakajima Kikka said...

OK...Perhaps some of the parents also want to provide their kids with something that was *missing* from their own upbringing as well: time for unstructured, self-generated play. I would think the parents also must have a lot of faith that learning in a natural, non-competitive way can be successful. And you're absolutely right about the almost complete lack of unsupervised freedom available to kids now. I'm sure the meteoric rise in ADD diagnoses is directly related to it. After an entire day running around in the Bronx, you must have been completely exhausted when you got home, with no nervous energy left for ADD behavior...

The model itself is intriguing, but, at least in its current configuration, seems limited to artistic-type kids, particularly those interested in fine arts, as well as anything that could be classified under "domestic arts" (cooking, sewing, crafts, etc). I watched the Sudbury intro video. The atmosphere of the place reminded me of a traditional women's finishing school. And while I saw plenty of computers, I saw no scales, microscopes, bunsen burners, hand tools or lathes. Nothing that would allow a kid with, say, an interest in biology, geology, or industrial arts to pursue that on her own with guidance from a knowledgeable adult coach. Come to think of it, I saw no hint that any of the students were trying to master a foreign language (a very finishing-school kind of thing) either, a skill that opens doors to entire new worlds.

The rather glaring omissions are interesting, to say the least. I'm curious as to why this is so.

CNu said...

My guess would be cost. Home Ec, music, and fine arts are all now missing from public school, so offering them at Sudbury fills a gap. They were fairly proud of their low tuition, so I'm thinking that's also a factor. I didn't see anywhere that they're a charter, so, no invisible threads of external state support.

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