The Paradox of Play

Are kids today having enough fun?

Children playing marbles

“I go to school,” my 3-year-old son says in a favorite home video from a decade and a half ago, the product of my brother-in-law’s talent for hiding his camera in the right places. Ben is chatting up his 6-year-old cousin as they sit side by side, happily drawing. Eliza continues to color, aware that he’s casting sidelong glances at what she’s producing on her paper while he scribbles on his. “No, you don’t,” she informs him. “You go to day care.” “No, I don’t go to kay care,” he insists, mispronouncing as he copies her drawing motions as best he can. “I go to ABC school.”

This scene could be held up as an object lesson in the stresses endured by the “hurried child” in a high-tech age—or it could serve as evidence of wholesome childhood play, and why kids should have more of it. On the one hand, Ben and Eliza, left free to putter, are acting like precocious “organization kids,” comparing institutional credentials—when they could be creating crazy drawings and discoursing imaginatively about them. On the other hand, here are two kids busily honing their fine motor skills and eagerly endorsing studiousness—all without any coercion or desire to impress an adult. They’re in their own little world, blissfully unaware that they’re being taped.

Our era of superachievement angst and No Child Left Behind duress is not the first time adults have worried that academic pressures are prematurely crowding out the kind of hands-on playtime that kids love. It will also not be the last time that the crusade to restore the primacy of play runs the risk of eroding the very playfulness the crusaders are eager to see more of. The paradox of the endeavor seems all but unavoidable. Play advocates bolster their case by proclaiming play’s social, emotional, and cognitive benefits, as David Elkind has recently done in The Power of Play: How Spontaneous, Imaginative Activities Lead to Happier, Healthier Children. Yet the more successful such advocates are in their instrumental defense of play, the further they stray from an appreciation of play as precisely the opposite—a pursuit that serves children’s own (not always obviously constructive) purposes, rather than the didactic designs of their elders.

It’s a tension that play advocates of the past sometimes recognized, as Howard P. Chudacoff takes care to note as he traces the fate of playtime over the centuries in his forthcoming Children at Play: An American History. In the aftermath of the “playground movement” early in the 20th century, for example, reformers were forced to face up to the problem: Kids weren’t flocking to the new enclosures that were supposed to lure them away from dangerous gutter games (favored especially, they felt, by immigrant children). As a boy from Worcester, Mass., explained, “I can’t go to the playgrounds now. They get on my nerves with so many men and women around telling you what to do.” Some reformers agonized about the adult intrusions, among them John Dewey’s wife, Evelyn, in a co-authored book in 1934:

We have cut peepholes in fences and spied on children at play, have written theses and treatises about what we saw, have created organizations about their play life, have made artificial places for them to play in and set organizers and supervisors over them. We have seized on their love of play and capitalized and commercialized it.

Not that she was about to urge that grown-ups back off. Experts concurred that the loss of natural play opportunities in an urbanized world of smaller families and a “push-button civilization” meant that play, alas, could no longer be left to kids. Facilitators were essential. The growing ranks of psychological professionals and toy manufacturers were ready to oblige. According to the enlightened new culture of childhood, play was not only crucial to socialization, but also important for the nurturing of imagination—which soon inspired more concerted efforts to feed kids’ appetite for fantasy (by Walt Disney, among others). Thanks to an emphasis on preserving an environment sheltered from the adult world, various historians have suggested, children until the 1950s still had plenty of freedom to maneuver. They were not yet totally at the mercy of the hovering gaze of elders; the new panoply of approved toys could be used in inventive, unapproved ways. You could say that paternalistic preaching left room for subversive practice.

As a new play—and playground—renaissance now gets under way, adults have become ever more self-consciously solicitous about not being excessively heavy-handed play arbiters. Yet the effects haven’t been unequivocally liberating by any means. Arguably, today’s subtler play engineers encroach even further than their predecessors on middle-class kids’ freedom to pursue the kind of unstructured peer-group improvising (and bullying and boisterous risk-taking) that can lead who knows where. Susan Gregory Thomas’ Buy, Buy Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds joins a chorus of books lamenting a blurring of boundaries between child and adult that have turned playtime into a less innocent and more instrumental interlude.

It’s not just that kids are enrolled earlier and earlier in adult-organized (potentially college-application-enhancing) sports and extracurricular activities. Indoors, even more than out, they’re deemed in need of stimuli from the very start. Marketers, invoking child-development science, employ a pincer approach. With ads endowing toys and videos with an educational “aura,” they abet parental eagerness to push cognitive precocity on babies and toddlers. At the same time, they’re doing their best to bypass parents and appeal directly to shifting ‘tween and teen tastes—well aware of the sway that kids have over family purchases. Priding themselves on keeping up with quirky youth interests and desires, marketers can now count on ever younger consumers chasing after brands and fads. Yet notice who’s not complaining. It’s rare to hear kids these days gripe that the adult-mediated play regime gets on their nerves. That very lack of resistance from video-savvy, sports-crazy kids is currently inspiring yet more adult concern about youthful stress, even as the engineering of play becomes ever more ambitious.

Consider the schemes for a “next-generation playground” to be built at New York’s South Street Seaport, designed by David Rockwell, who has created adult recreation spaces such as Nobu restaurant and Café Grey. Working in consultation with a variety of child-development experts, he exemplifies the cutting-edge interest in ensuring more than mere physical safety. Where the playground upgrades of more than a decade ago took the “jungle” out of gym, with the spread of spongy surfaces and tamer “climbing structures,” the new focus is more finely tuned. Promoting group synergy and innovation is the goal, echoing the corporate culture of places like, say, Google. ”Play is not optional for kids,” Rockwell told the New York Times, in an article (subscription required) announcing plans for the more free-form play area with movable parts, to be staffed by “play workers” trained to facilitate the best use of them; “play is how children learn to build community, how they learn to work with other people, it’s how they learn to kind of engage their sense of creativity … to understand that they can control their own environment.” The target audience was a little young to offer much in the way of comment, but follow-up articles (subscription required) indicated wariness among adults: Of course it’s great to get kids outdoors, but shouldn’t they be left more to their own devices?

Nostalgia for free-range childhood has inspired a new wave of concern about children’s alienation from nature—intensified by alarm that kids themselves rarely express much sense of loss: That’s perhaps the most disturbing symptom of how high-tech and indoor-oriented their notions of play have lately become. (According to one study, only 8 percent of 9- to 12-year-olds spent time in outside activities other than organized sports in 2003, a 50 percent decline since 1997.) To flip though Conn and Hal Iggulden’s The Dangerous Book for Boys, an unexpected best seller (article purchase required) first in England and now here, is to see the latest neoromantic tensions at work. Officially addressed mainly to ‘tween and teen male readers in need of a compendium of information about old-fashioned, mostly fresh-air boyish passions—from making bows and arrows to learning about constellations and heroic battle stories—the book is in fact packaged for a different clientele. Its retro style is aimed at wistful parental buyers. Extrapolating from themselves, the thirtysomething authors are counting on a particular audience: fathers eager to embrace a rustic vision of self-reliant and resourceful childhood that few of them actually experienced—and even more eager to believe that such a vision still holds an appeal for children, too.

And maybe it can, though that is only likely to happen with some help from Dad. (No boy I know would delve into this book of his own accord.) But this isn’t necessarily the contradiction it might seem. After all, the modern father’s ineptitude when it comes to building a treehouse or a go-cart, not to mention playing marbles, could prove a godsend. Instead of a fussy facilitator, he can be a fellow bumbler, feeling his way and having fun. As he may well have forgotten by now, that’s part of what is called playing.