Today’s parents might be surprised by how long children have felt boxed in by adult-imposed structure.
I cant keep track of all the days so maybe I shouldn’t right everyday because I have home work and music lessons and guitar lessons and Brownies and many other things.
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So goes a 1945 diary entry written by a 7-year-old girl in Children at Play, in which Howard P. Chudacoff has assembled historical, sociological, and psychological research to trace the changes in play in America since the colonial period. Owing to a wide variety of cultural reasons, the landscape of children’s play began to change dramatically in the second half of the 20th century, and those changes have intensified and accelerated up to the present. Interfering adults are everywhere. Pre-war dolls and trucks needed children to impose meaning on them, but toys now come fully loaded with elaborate personalities and histories created for them by their grown-up purveyors. Playtime has been replaced by lessons with professionals. And, while parents have always constrained children’s activities out of fear for their safety—“kite flying … could frighten horses and cause accidents,” cautions a catalog of games from 1802—the effort to protect children from every possible hazard has intensified so much that kids during recess are no longer allowed to chase, climb high, or hide (and that’s if they’re even lucky enough to get recess at all). These factors have made unstructured play nearly impossible. Even if an individual kid has a moment of free time and is allowed out of the house on his own, his friends are trapped in after-school care, reporting to soccer practice, or feverishly learning Mandarin, portrait painting, or trapeze artistry. Of course, everyone knows this story, which has now reached the chapter about childhood obesity and video games.
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.
Why make it so hard for them? We seem to have returned to the 18th-century notion that play for its own sake is a waste of time, that children can be allowed to pursue their natural inclinations only if those can be channeled into activities that will prepare them to be orderly and productive (and now, God help us, “creative”) adults—even today’s play movement stresses the uplifting “educational value” of play. But childhood is not just preparation for “real life,” it’s a good portion of life itself. If the golden years of childhood are from age 3 to 12, they encompass more than twice the time people spend in what is generally regarded as a focal point of life: the college years. As Smith’s memoir demonstrates, childhood—those first, fresh experiences of the world, unclouded by reason and practicality, when you are the center of existence and anything might happen—should be regarded less as a springboard to striving adulthood than as a well of rich individual perception and experience to which you can return for sustenance throughout life, whether you rise in the world or not. Children have a knack for simply living that adults can never regain. If they’re allowed to exercise it a bit, perhaps they’ll have childhoods, like Smith’s, worth remembering.