Child’s Play: A Manifesto

I’m still steamed about kids and play and this fascinating article (on the history of playgrounds and how their designs have embodied radically different views of childhood) didn’t exactly put my mind at ease:

The two men (Dattner and Friedberg) preferred the term playscape, an important distinction auguring the end of play as a series of dull interactions with one isolated object after another and offering a new conception of creative play…that reflected a revolutionized understanding of the vital importance of play in mental and physical development.

Play, as Friedberg noted in his 1970 book Play and Interplay, was not merely an “expenditure of excess energy,” as previous generations had been accustomed to treating it. (He was thinking of Moses’s pronouncement that the primary purpose of a playground was to “intercept children … and provide a place in which excess energy can be worked off without damage to the park surroundings.”3) In contrast, play was “essential to a culture.”

The author goes on to chronicle the depressing way in which many of the goals of playground design (in the 1960s) were eventually subverted by the rise of the litigious, anxiety-driven era of childrearing in the 1990s (about which I’ve written here) when playgrounds once again became sanitized, safe, and dull environments that limited kids’ ability to stretch themselves, physically and intellectually.

It’s hard for me to understand why play’s central role in human cognition continues to be so misunderstood. Put another way: it makes me completely crazy. When I was a teacher and preschool director, I constantly had to make my ‘case’ to parents that rich imaginative play fosters children’s intellectual development – not only via secondary by-products like impulse control, perspective taking, and the development of social skills but also through the primary acquisition of cognitive skills like mathematical reasoning and phonological awareness that are more directly predictive of academic performance.

If I had a dime for every parent who’d say, “Play is really great but I really don’t want my four year-old to ‘fall behind.’ I want him to be a good reader.”  As if reading isn’t facilitated hugely by pretend play when kids are making up and sharing their elaborate fantasies, beginning to learn the sequencing of ideas (the concept of a beginning, middle and end), hearing and practicing new vocabulary, making the thrilling (and essential) discovery that their scribbled pretend grocery list is something called ‘writing’ that carries actual meaning, and experiencing language as a social experience. It just astounds me that people can’t see why play is so powerful. At this point – after decades and decades of research – it no longer seems merely ignorant to be dismissive of play; it almost feels like a plot to harm children.

And it’s because play has been so denigrated over the years that we have not one but two major problems:

First, and most obvious, the kill-joy adults have taken play away from kids. Poor kids and rich kids, both. Simply put, kids are getting totally screwed by the adults and I don’t know why more of them aren’t just going completely postal in their classrooms in protest. (Some of them are losing it, however. Disciplinary problems in early childhood have increased pretty dramatically, and who can blame these kids?)  Walk into any public kindergarten in America today. They look like 2nd grade classrooms from 30 or 40 years ago, so absent is play from the typical Kindergarten classroom, replaced by “skills-based” (sic) curriculum. It’s unclear what skills are being developed: skill in filling out work sheets, I guess. Whenever I hear conservative rhetoric about going ‘back to basics’ in schools, I have to laugh out loud because, truly, if we went back to basics, from a generation ago, we’d back off and let kids be kids for a  lot longer. And we certainly wouldn’t be taking recess from five year-olds, like some pedagogic Grinch, and making them spend hours filling out work sheets at their desks.

But here’s what’s almost as bad: Because kids have so little experience of richly imaginative play, they are often at a complete loss when they are given a chance to ‘play.’ Many kids really don’t know how to “pretend play” anymore. They’ve memorized TV show and movie scripts and they play with highly specific themed toys, rather than toys with flexible uses. They have no experience making up a story from, say, a pile of blocks or playing dress-up with an old trunk full of grown up clothes. I saw this first hand over and over again as a teacher. And kids’ increasing inability to play in the complex and narrative fashion that kids have done for centuries, maybe millennia, only reinforces adults’ messed up idea that kids really can’t handle – or don’t need – such unstructured experiences. What they really need, the adults conclude, is more and more structured time. It’s a particularly hopeless cycle.  A few good souls try to whip their kids into a frenzy of ‘good’ play, over-orchestrating everything and looking fairly ridiculous. But these people (usually parents or very devoted teachers) end up exhausted from bucking the societal trends. And, anyway, there are no other kids around for these parents’ kids to play with because everyone’s so busy taking tap lessons and playing travel soccer in utero. (Honestly, if I see one more soccer team comprised of four year-olds who don’t know – or care- where their goal post is, I’m going to throw up.)

It’s so painfully and manifestly wrong. And yet I’ve found most adults so closed to this way of understanding human development that I’ve almost given up trying to make the case for play on purely cognitive grounds. Instead, I focus on how play supports social-emotional learning. That’s what I did at the Aspen Ideas Festival. I pulled out the Harvard card, which always wakes up a few people, and talked about all those bright students who can’t figure out how to be in the world. But it’s a bit of a feint. Not that play doesn’t make kids more collaborative, more patient, more empathetic, better able to control their impulses. It does.

But it also makes kids smarter. End of story.

And when we look back 30 or 40 years from now and assess the consequences of this misguided takeover of childhood, we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.

About ErikaChristakis

Yale Lecturer in early childhood education/Licensed teacher/Former preschool director/author. In possession of: unmarketable bachelor’s degree (Harvard, anthropology), semi-marketable graduate degrees (public health, education…). Rewarding career at the intersection of family, society, and schools (including long stint in parenting vortex). Forging a new path to connect all of the above.
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2 Responses to Child’s Play: A Manifesto

  1. xlanza says:

    Hooray for child’s play manifestos! I wrote one myself five years ago, and that launched five years of blogging and a book on kids’ neighborhood play. I share your passion for the subject.

    The biggest problem, I’ve found, is that while a *lot* of parents agree with you and me that their kids should play a lot more, very few of them know how to make it happen. That’s become my focus. As it turns out, it’s a heck of a lot of work because it requires cultural change at the block (micro-neighborhood) level.

    • Your manifesto is great! Thank you for writing. It inspired me to think about my own Top Ten list. My sister and I used to play “old fashioned days,” an ill defined game whose goal was to frenetically ‘harvest’ food for the coming winter. (I think we spent a lot of time pulling weeds out of the brook behind my house.) We also staged elaborate variety shows, loosely modeled on Carol Burnett and the Sonny and Cher hour, with our own songs and skits. We played animal hospital and I once threw a battery at my sister’s head when she wouldn’t let me be the Vet. (my assigned role was to clean the cages!) We had a crawl space behind my sister’s bedroom, which was the site of much mischief. We rode our bikes all day. We dressed our brothers like dolls and once played “baseball players’ wives,” I’m mortified to report (it was the sixties!) we also pretended to be mermaids (we had a lot of unsupervised beach time, as I recall.) One of my more thrilling childhood memories was watching a neighbor kid (who skirted the edge of being neglected) swim through a culvert under our street.

      You are right that high quality play takes effort: space, time, other kids, getting rid of distractions. But it’s totally possible. Still.

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