July 14, 2010
Playtime is Over (conclusion) by David Elkind
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.
Bullying has always been with us, but it did not become prevalent enough to catch the attention of researchers until the 1970s, just as TV and then computers were moving childhood indoors. It is now recognized as a serious problem in all the advanced countries. The National Education Association estimates that in the United States, 160,000 children miss school every day because they fear attacks or intimidation by other students. Massachusetts is considering anti-bullying legislation.
While correlation is not necessarily causation, it seems clear that there is a link among the rise of television and computer games, the decline in peer-to-peer socialization and the increase of bullying in our schools. I am not a Luddite — I think that the way in which computers have made our students much more aware of the everyday lives of children in other countries is wonderful, and that they will revolutionize education as the new, tech-savvy generation of teachers moves into the schools. But we should also recognize what is being lost.
We have to adapt to childhood as it is today, not as we knew it or would like it to be. The question isn’t whether recess coaches are good or bad — they seem to be with us to stay — but whether they help students form the age-old bonds of childhood. To the extent that the coaches focus on play, give children freedom of choice about what they want to do, and stay out of the way as much as possible, they are likely a good influence.
In any case, recess coaching is a vastly better solution than eliminating recess in favor of more academics. Not only does recess aid personal development, but studies have found that children who are most physically fit tend to score highest on tests of reading, math and science.
Friedrich Fröbel, the inventor of kindergarten, said that children need to “learn the language of things” before they learn the language of words. Today we might paraphrase that axiom to say that children need to learn the real social world before they learn the virtual one.