Children Deprived of Time to Play Are Deprived of the Childhood they Need and Deserve
By Anne R. Pierce, author of Ships Without a Shore: America’s Undernurtured Children
In fast-paced, competitively charged modern America, there is ceaseless downward pressure upon children of a younger and younger age. When my oldest son entered Kindergarten, about half of the kindergarteners in his class participated in organized sports; the participation of kindergarteners in organized sports was a new trend. By the time my youngest son entered kindergarten, he was the only boy in his class who had not already participated in organized sports. Today, tiny toddlers in uniforms gather on fields and in gymnasiums, with frustrated coaches imploring them to “listen” and learn the rules of the game. At the games, parents chide toddlers for being restless and impatient to get home; toddlers often leave their own practices, only to be brought as spectators to their sibling’s games, or to be put in the car to drive siblings to and from their activities. Young children today expend their energy on long days in group situations, on preschool activities and after-school programs, on team sports and music and athletic lessons.
When a child enters first grade, rather than being provided with some after school relaxation which might help him adjust to longer school hours, he is provided with more “sports” and “lessons.” Increasing numbers of bright young children spend after-school time with tutors or in after-school programs to attain that ever-elusive “edge.” Children in elementary school now “train” and lift weights in preparation for their sports. Indeed, it is now common for children to “double up,” participating in two team sports at a time. An ever-increasing selection of stimulating activities lures modern families, making downtime elusive. If one attends first grade extracurricular activities, they’ll likely find parents eager to discover the activities of other people’s children and anxious to sign their children up for - whatever it may be. Many parents appear worried about their child missing out. Some appear jealous of the activities other parents have found. But what is the end goal of all this activity? Children spend much of their time exhausted by activities the purposes of which are ill-defined. The end of all this activity is vague and inadequately justified, even though the means are everywhere all around us. There is a definite sense that, if everyone else is increasing their step, we had better increase our step too, never mind the why.
The minimal amount of quiet and family time children and teenagers are permitted means that we have become unwilling to give our young room to stretch and grow. The possibility that children might find these activities less rather than more desirable when they are older because these activities were forced upon them at an inappropriately young age is not addressed. The possibility that they will never find their own passionate interests because they spent so much time pursuing interests their parents chose for them does not enter in.
The possibility that having a competitive edge might not be as important as leading a virtuous, intelligently thought out life is not addressed nor is the fact that one needs time to be a thinker; and some degree of freedom to be creative. Longer school years and school days and after-school learning experiences create more time for “information absorption” – but they come at the expense of time for creativity and independent thought. Making matters worse, as the school year gets longer, time for play within the school day gets shorter. Recess and fresh air are giving way to carefully monitored activities. All year school and after school programs certainly fulfill a societal need. But need and preference are too often muddied, and we too often rationalize our decision to over-structure our children rather than thinking it through. Such is the basis of many modern choices. Our busy lives do not allow time to question whether all this busyness is necessary or good.
It is sad to think of young children with little time for play. They are missing the multifarious opportunities that play provides: for relaxing, imagining, exploring, creating, interacting, relating, role-playing, learning and just having fun. Play in childhood is important both for intellectual growth and for psychological growth. Play is both a way for children to relish the experience of childhood and a way for them to prepare for adulthood. Teaching children to be tough and prepared for the world, achieving doers instead of capable thinkers, has its consequences. Children’s innate curiosity is intense. When that curiosity has no room to fulfill itself, it burns out like a smothered flame.