I laughed out loud when I read the piece in the New York Times about the movement to “restore play.”
Let’s set aside for the moment the need for everything in our culture to be a media-sanctioned “movement.” (There’s a whole lot of adult ego involved in this, and I don’t know if that’s more laughable or depressing. Do we really need a “movement” to validate our choices? Sigh. But if that’s what it takes, then I’m all for it.)
First and foremost, imaginative, open-ended play has not gone away. How else do we explain the explosion in sales of LEGO, Crayola products, arts and crafts and board games in the past couple of years? Not to mention such brands as Barbie, Hot Wheels, Nerf and others that are not screen-based and that require a child’s imagination and active involvement.
The problem, as the reporter points out is the parents. So hobbled by fear for their kids or their fragile emotional lives and consumed with their own lives that they have forgotten that kids NEED all kinds of play, and play is messy, inconvenient, full of hurt feelings, riddled with bumps and scrapes and not always happy. It’s kind of like…oh, I don’t know…LIFE. So many parents have become so afraid of letting their kids experience any negative feelings that they have literally crippled their kids when it comes to play. And if kids don’t play, they are ill equipped for life—as badly off as being illiterate or without social skills. The myriad joys and sorrows that arise from play prepare kids to deal with life.
When I look back at some of the more egregious crimes against play—and childhood—over the past year, it’s always the parents. There are the angry blog posts and responses about what could happen to kids, despite statistical near impossibility. I think of “play coaches” and the desire of parents to discourage best friends because some kids could be left out, and I think of the money spent to retouch school pictures so the bumps and bruises of childhood are wiped from the record. All of these are motivated by the desire for childhood to be perfect and devoid of stress, but it also robs kids of the chance to have experiences and learn to cope with them—to lose a best friend, see a pet die, lose a board game or be picked last for a team. This is the psychic and emotional grounding of life.
Pervasive as some of this thinking is, we have the pleasure of knowing many, many parents who have embraced classic play with all its problems and mess. These are parents who understand that, as I always say, we become what we play. Creating an environment where kids can be self-reliant, independent and fearless but aware is a gift of immeasurable value. But parents and adults have to check their egos at the door. As many are realizing, you can’t have it both ways.