July 6, 2010
Playtime is Over by David Elkind
RECESS is no longer child’s play. Schools around the country, concerned about bullying and arguments over the use of the equipment, are increasingly hiring “recess coaches” to oversee students’ free time. Playworks, a nonprofit training company that has placed coaches at 170 schools from Boston to Los Angeles, is now expanding thanks to an $18 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Critics have suggested that such coaching is yet another example of the over-scheduling and over-programming of our children. And, as someone whose scholarly work has consistently reinforced the idea that young people need unstructured imagination time, I’d probably have been opposed to recess coaches in the past. But childhood has changed so radically in recent years that I think the trend makes sense, at least at some schools and with some students.
Children today are growing up in a world vastly different from the one their parents knew. As the writer Richard Louv has persuasively chronicled, our young people are more aware of threats to the global environment than they are of the natural world in their own backyards.
A Nielsen study last year found that children aged 6 to 11 spent more than 28 hours a week using computers, cellphones, televisions and other electronic devices. A University of Michigan study found that from 1979 to 1999, children on the whole lost 12 hours of free time a week, including eight hours of unstructured play and outdoor activities. One can only assume that the figure has increased over the last decade, as many schools have eliminated recess in favor of more time for academics.
One consequence of these changes is the disappearance of what child-development experts call “the culture of childhood.” 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.
Yet this culture has disappeared almost overnight, and not just in America. For example, in the 1970s a Japanese photographer, Keiki Haginoya, undertook what was to be a lifelong project to compile a photo documentary of children’s play on the streets of Tokyo. He gave up the project in 1996, noting that the spontaneous play and laughter that once filled the city’s streets, alleys and vacant lots had utterly vanished
Check back next week for the continuation of this interesting article.