“There’s no imaginative play anymore, no pretend,” Ms. Wilson said with a sigh.
For several years, studies and statistics have been mounting that suggest the culture of play in the United States is vanishing. Children spend far too much time in front of a screen, educators and parents lament — 7 hours 38 minutes a day on average, according to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation last year. And only one in five children live within walking distance (a half-mile) of a park or playground, according to a 2010 report by the federal Centers for Disease Control, making them even less inclined to frolic outdoors.”
Reading this NYT article on the Alliance for Childhood, a nonprofit pro-play group, brought me right back to the part of my childhood I spent living with my grandparents in suburban Virginia. There were no parks, only stretches of woods winding between carefully-carved home lots; school playgrounds were securely fenced-in from all angles.
My friends and I used the shallow span of woods behind our house to make-believe a department store – of all things! I vaguely remember that the name of the store was a morphed version of Woodward & Lothrop. Each one of us ran one department in the store. Actually, I was the oldest one in the neighborhood and took it upon myself to run the whole place like a mini-tyrant, as I remember. I loomed over the group, coming up with rules and plans to form the whole “business.” We used scraps of surveyor’s tape and random found objects to mark and designate each area. Who knows what we were actually doing and accomplishing out there?! I do remember that my grandparents let me play for hours every day before homework and dinner, only checking on us now and then when it seemed like we were hatching some larger mischief.
As I’m writing this, I realize this isn’t far from what I do right now for a career (hopefully a lot more diplomatically)! Although there were other imaginative games, like the restaurant in grandma’s kitchen where the only thing on the menu was whatever grandma made that night… but the time spent outside – organizing and arguing, and imagining – with my friends, was so precious I realize now.
I never thought about how kids don’t get to do that much anymore, much less about how important it was for me, until recently. Sports clubs, music lessons, swimming class, and art lessons are important, and probably a lot more widespread, but they’re not more important than just free time and bonding without instruction and supervision. I wonder if other adults remember their childhood make-believe games in the woods? I remember at least a half-dozen.
Ms. Almon recalls from her own childhood. “Our neighborhood gang organized a lot of softball games,” she said. “There was no adult around. We adjusted the rules as we needed them. Once the adults are involved it becomes: Here are the rules, and we have to follow these rules. It still can be a good activity but stops being play.”
Alyssa works at all MOM’s locations.
Thanks for sharing this, and for recognizing the growing need, especially for today’s overstimulated, overscheduled child, for free play time that is just that… no coaches, no screens, and no agenda. It’s incredible what can emerge when children are left to their own devices, and how quickly a field and a roll of tape becomes a bustling department store! I worry, though, that today’s kids have been conditioned to fear the open-ended exploration that comes with the freedom to simply go out and play.
Being so accustomed to having their activities scheduled, their down time filled with tv, video games, laptops, even using their ride to school to play an app game on mom’s iPhone, kids today often feel totally lost when directed to choose their own activity. Teachers report that kids cringe in fear when given free range to choose their own project/writing topic, and parents fight the “I’m boooored” whines at home when kids are left to their own devices.
Play is a fundamental need for healthy development, and kids today, more than ever, need to be supported and given frequent and varied opportunities to play and explore.