We do seem to live in a time when the very idea of children's play must be defended. When did that happen? Childhood play is one of those manifestly good things. (I believe the same thing about adult play, but that truth is perhaps not so manifest.) We really shouldn't need studies or experts to "prove" its value on an intellectual, social, or even spiritual level; that play is, in fact, useful, educational. And I expect most readers of this blog would agree. Rather than being a waste of time, play is the purpose of childhood.
In this month's issue of The Atlantic, you'll find a terrific article taking off on the reissue of Robert Paul Smith's 1957 bestseller, Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing, and the newly published book Children At Play: An American History (Howard Chudacoff). Entitled Leave Those Kids Alone, the article echos Smith's point that adults need to get out of the way and simply let children play.
I was born in 1962, with memories of a childhood similar to the idyllic ones in this article, but it's instructive to me to be reminded that folks were bemoaning the loss of childhood and unstructured play even then. I suppose that people have always bemoaned the loss of childhood, as each generation ages, growing naturally nostalgic for those innocent carefree times, regretting that their own children aren't getting to have that experience. I recently overheard my own 14-year-old daughter and her friends reminiscing fondly over their princess crowns and Barbies and bemoaning the playthings of today's kindergardeners.
The article asks the question, "Can it be true that children no longer know how to play?"
Chudacoff argues otherwise. Although adults have perennially felt compelled to protect children and guide their play—encouraging board games, for instance, in the 1800s—to play is, intrinsically, to not do exactly what the grown-ups say. A 1981 U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission study of playground use scolded that children were “walking up and down a slide, climbing onto any aspect of playground apparatus that allowed a grip or foothold, and roughhousing.” That’s play. Children have always taken risks and will continue to do so (which is why some experts argue that restricting them in every way imaginable only pushes them to go farther to find hazards that adults have not yet anticipated); children will always play with objects not intended to be toys; children will always use toys in ways the manufacturers—or the parents—do not recommend. They are driven to experiment and create; that is what developing human beings do.
As I and others spill quantities of virtual ink bemoaning how lawyers and insurance companies and overprotective parents and risk-averse schools are ruining childhood, the kids are playing, making mistakes, falling on asphalt, bumping their heads, shocking their tongues on 9-volt batteries, jumping off things that are "too high," taking themselves into imaginary worlds where sticks are wands and stones are magical. Yes, we make it hard on them with padded corners, safety gates, cushy "fall zones," pre-programmed toys, classes, camps, rules and regulations, but try as we might, they're still playing.
I'm not saying that the adults who understand this shouldn't keep up the good fight, but it's nice to know that the kids are alright. And someday it will be their generation's turn to bemoan and giggle gleefully about the things they did behind the adults' backs. In the meantime they play.
Although The Atlantic article's title references a different classic British rock group, I think this one is more appropriate because these boys really knew how to play (and the Pink Floyd video makes me cry).