Friday, May 10, 2013

An Imperative Force

We build at least one new volcano every year at Woodland Park. Our current one is purple with sparkles. Periodically, to great fanfare, we fill it with baking soda, dish soap, liquid water color, and vinegar to create a sudsy eruption. The kids like it, but after a couple rounds the hew and cry goes up to "Put a cork in it!" By that they mean for me to empty the "lava chamber," pare the ingredients down to just baking soda and vinegar, then as quickly as I can, shove a cork into the top, sealing the chemical reaction inside.

We then move off to an exaggeratedly "safe" distance . . . waiting . . . waiting . . . waiting. We try counting down from 20. We try chanting for it to blow. A few kids risk running right up to it, then racing away. We almost give up. Then suddenly, Boom! the cork blasts into the air. On good days we've had corks go a good 25 feet.

That's how things under pressure work: you stuff a cork in them and eventually the cork will be, sooner or later, ejected. If you jam the cork in too tightly then you get a blowout somewhere else. We once put a ghastly split the side of a 2-liter soda bottle that way.

My point is that an imperative force will always vent itself.

That's how play is: an imperative force. It will happen whether we damn well permit it or not, Boom! If I keep the kids sitting around at circle time too long, for instance, things first start to fizz with a little shifting about, then side conversations or accidentally-on-purpose tormenting the kid next to you with your restless foot, if I keep pushing forward without letting them vent their built up instinct to play it will lead to a full-on rebellion. The kids will play. I might be able to keep the cork in it for awhile, but the children will eventually erupt.

This is true of play on a day to day basis and it's true over the long haul, where, perhaps a better metaphor is the slow motion imperative force of, say, the dammed and levied water of the Mississippi River which will, no matter how clever our engineers, repeatedly, then eventually, wash away the place known as New Orleans because it's been built exactly where the water wants to go. It might not happen in our lifetime or even our children's lifetime, but one day the river will win.

Recently, a reader sent me a link to this Psychology Today article, which I'd read a few years ago, but re-read yesterday, noting that it had been reviewed and updated earlier this year. It's a good, long piece that quotes many child development experts on the pitfalls (depression, anxiety, stress, dependency) of what we've come to call "helicopter parenting." If you've not read it, I recommend taking a look: it's not good for kids to be over-managed and over-protected by mom and dad, mainly because it robs children of play, and specifically the part where they get hurt while taking the risks inherent in play (physical, emotional, and social), which is a natural part of the way we learn many of life's most important lessons about self-regulation, confidence, motivation, hard work, dealing with stress, and getting along with others.

The part that leapt out at me upon this read-through of the article, however, was this:

The end result of cheating childhood is to extend it forever. Despite all the parental pressure, and probably because of it, kids are pushing back -- in their own way. They're taking longer to grow up. Adulthood no longer begins when adolescence ends, according to a recent report by University of Pennsylvania sociologist Frank F. Furstenberg and colleagues. There is, instead, a growing no-man's-land of postadolescence from 20 to 30, which they dub "early adulthood." Those in it look like adults but "haven't become fully adult yet -- traditionally defined as finishing school, landing a job with benefits, marrying and parenting -- because they are not ready or perhaps not permitted to do so" . . . Using the classic benchmarks of adulthood, 65 percent of males had reached adulthood by the age of 30 in 1960. By contrast, in 2000, only 31 percent had. Among women, 77 percent met the benchmarks of adulthood by age 30 in 1960. By 2000, the number had fallen to 46 percent . . . Take away play from the front end of development and it finds a way onto the back end. A steady march of success through regimented childhood arranged and monitored by parents creates young adults who need time to explore themselves. "They often need a period of college or afterward to legitimately experiment -- to be children."

The article doesn't say this, but I will: if you think the risk-taking involved in early childhood is harrowing, the "play" in which most post-adolescents tend to engage is often downright life-threatening, involving drinking, drugs, guns, sex, and, of course, cars. This is how play too often looks when it winds up on the "back end." I don't think it's unfair to assert that play -- real play -- in early childhood is a kind of vaccination against many of those dangers we have come to associate with the mutation of post-adolescence.

Play is an imperative force. It's not healthy to put a cork in it. It's not healthy to dam it up. In fact, it is ultimately impossible to do so. The volcano will erupt and the river will flow. It's up to those of us who work with young children to provide plenty of room to engage in freely-chosen, self-directed, open-ended play so that they can learn the important things they need and want to learn today when those lessons are more naturally, easily, and indeed, more safely learned.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This just confirmed a feeling I had but could not fully formulate. Thank you. It changed me.