Saturday, March 27, 2010

Is Playtime Really Over?

(HT to Becky for the link to this article)

David Elkind, professor emeritus of child development at Tufts University, has an interesting piece in the March 26th issue of the NY Times, about "the culture of childhood" and its ever-changing form the world over:

"This culture, which is to be found all over the world, was best documented in its English-language form by the British folklorists Peter and Iona Opie in the 1950s. They cataloged the songs, riddles, jibes and incantations (“step on a crack, break your mother’s back”) that were passed on by oral tradition. Games like marbles, hopscotch and hide and seek date back hundreds of years. The children of each generation adapted these games to their own circumstances."

Now, I wasn't actually aware of this 'culture of childhood,' before or after my own childhood, but when I'd finished reading the piece I felt sad that the culture I'd experienced was so radically different from what so many of today's kids are supposedly experiencing. I went to school in prehistoric times, mind you, when parents didn't walk/ride/drive their kids to school, nor did they generally pick their kids UP from school afterwards. We walked home, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups. I remember crossing a little bridge each day, terrified that some of the Bad Kids would come up from underneath and throw rocks at me, something they were known for. I also remember being hit on the leg by a random firework while I rose my bike to school, the scar of which is still on my knee today. And I remember falling from a precarious position on a teeter totter, hitting my stomach so hard than I passed out I was so winded. No adults anywhere to be found. Did I care? Not really.

"For children in past eras, participating in the culture of childhood was a socializing process. They learned to settle their own quarrels, to make and break their own rules, and to respect the rights of others. They learned that friends could be mean as well as kind, and that life was not always fair.

Now that most children no longer participate in this free-form experience — play dates arranged by parents are no substitute — their peer socialization has suffered. One tangible result of this lack of socialization is the increase in bullying, teasing and discrimination that we see in all too many of our schools."

And while Mr Elkind's point is more concerned with the "link [between] the rise of television and computer games, the decline in peer-to-peer socialization and the increase of bullying in our schools" (which I LOVE seeing in print by the way, because I heartily agree with him), what drew my attention (and ruffled my feathers) was this statement:

"We have to adapt to childhood as it is today, not as we knew it or would like it to be."

Why? Why do we have to adapt? Just who's making the rules here? The kids? That thing known as "social pressure"? Or is this a thinly veiled "We haven't a hope in hell of redirecting their interests to anything more creatively social so get used to it." I don't like this conclusion one bit. Doesn't imply that we parents/teachers/adults are on the outside, looking in, forever out of step and unable to prevent our children from being swallowed up by some mindless National Zeitgeist? Do parents with kids in school just surrender to the "Recess Coaches" and hope for the best? I'm with Becky - be radical. You don't have to let your kids be submerged in the fetid waters of endless computer games, bullies at school, and seeing things like text-messaging taking over your family dinners. But it takes some effort, and that is probably why Mr Elkind comes to the conclusions he does: we humans aren't so great in the willpower department. But we really need to be more creative about this. Not only are imaginations at stake here, not to mention quality of life for everyone who has to live with all these maladjusted kids we're churning out, but think of the health issues our kids will see in 20 years, if they continue with this computer-obsessed lifestyle. Watch this is you don't believe me. And be thankful some people have different ideas about adapting to this new "culture of childhood."


Phoenix32 said...

I read this today and it explores some of the same topics:

(from Brain,Child the most awesome magazine about parenting ever.)

I don't agree with all the conclusions in this article, but it did make me think. I think Elkind isn't wrong to say that we can't go backwards. Technology and culture have moved us all in new ways that we can't simply undo. But that doesn't mean we have to simply retire old ways or that we have to like the way things are now. I think we have to find new creative ways to be, especially as parents. Homeschooling is, to me, an especially good example of something that's both old and totally new.

sheila said...

Thanks for that link, Phoenix. Excellent article. I like how she says that nature isn't the only answer. I agree. But I think that more attention needs to be paid to how much time indoors, on computers and whatnot, and away from real people, our kids spend, if only for health reasons. We're going to be a nation of diabetics one day, at this rate.

Rebecca said...

Phoenix, that is a fantastic article.

Thanks for sharing it.