The Chat Room

Some Serious Fun

Ann Hulbert talks with readers about the value of kids’ playtime.

Contributing editor Ann Hulbert was online at on Thursday, June 21, to discuss the benefits of children’s playtime. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

Ann Hulbert: Good morning, everyone. I’m Ann Hulbert, here to answer your questions, and hear your thoughts, about children and play, the subject of a “Sandbox” column I just wrote. Thanks for joining me.


Southern Maryland: How do you incorporate play for teenagers? Our child volunteers at her favorite sport spot, which is a meeting place for her friends to sort of practice and mostly talk. Parents have graciously sponsored pool parties, and what goes better than water and kids of any age? Outside of these activities, what else can I do? I do see a lot of kids unable to play because they are not physically fit or aerobically fit, slim and overweight kids. We are fortunate that we have a nice playground in our neighborhood.

Ann Hulbert: It sounds to me as though you have an enviable setup. Your daughter’s mixing volunteering with peer mingling—and she’s not at a shopping mall! From what you say, I gather there is some supervision, but your child and her friends are busy with their own volunteering activity: again, a great blend. Having a circle of parents who are eager to host gatherings of teenagers is a lucky situation to be in.


Whittier, Calif.: I enjoyed your article and believe we are the last generation given the freedom and safety to spend the summer running all over the neighborhood and playing pirates with the hammock and the tree house. As an educator, I hear too often about kids’ self-esteem being low and how I am to incorporate yet another strategy, which studies show will be the magic bullet to raise their feelings of self-worth. I wonder what the relationship is between play and self-esteem? I will try to log on in time to read your responses to others’ questions.

Ann Hulbert: I know what you mean about feeling that there are all too many strategies to be mastering as a parent. I think we’re sort of beyond the wave of obsessive emphasis on raising children’s self-esteem. There have been all kinds of studies exploring the various benefits—social, cognitive, emotional—of kids’ play, mostly focusing on younger children. Not surprisingly, they’re not conclusive, but researchers have suggested plenty of positive outcomes: that play helps boost school readiness, primes kids for literacy, can help them in group activities. Success in any of those realms, I bet, makes kids feel pretty good about themselves.


Washington: Hi Ann. What are your thoughts regarding the freedoms of American kids compared to kids in other countries? One of the readers wondered what kids could do in their spare time, aside from swimming in a pool or going to a supervised party. The fact is, in America, probably not much else. But in Europe, Japan, even Canada, they have a lot more freedoms.

Ann Hulbert: I’d be very interested to know more than I do about how kids in the countries you mention spend their free time. I wonder if you’re suggesting that the American hyperconcern about children’s safety hems in activities here more than in less alarmist cultures. But I’d say that even here, there are more than pools to entertain kids outside: parks, zoos, bike rides (even bowling, puttering in backyards, for those who have them.

_______________________ “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.” You suggest that greater subtlety of today’s youth marketers have undermined this, but won’t kids always find ways to subvert their parents’ playtime will? Won’t they always create new, transformative uses for even the most cleverly designed toy?

Ann Hulbert: I think you’re right, and that is a central theme in one of the books I refer to, soon to come out, Howard P. Chudacoff’s Children at Play. Still, I think there is a way in which the more scripted games kids play on the computer, and the toy tie-ins, complete with TV program back stories, arguably lend themselves less readily to kids turning them to their own uses. I’d also say that an ever more intensive supervisory ethos does tend to mean that kids are totally on their own less often—at least not alone without a TV on in front of them. Getting lost in their own pretend worlds is perhaps harder—there’s less down time in which kids do that—yet I agree, it’s also what most kids find ways to do, no matter what.


Washington: What is your opinion of what Richard Louv has termed “nature-defecit disorder,” with kids suffering from not spending enough time in natural surroundings? Is this a true problem for today’s young generation, or more like nostalgia for adults’ own childhoods at play in nature? Getting Lost in the Great Indoors(Post, June 19)

Ann Hulbert: Well, the figure cited in the Washington Post article about the percentage of kids who actually spend time outdoors—and a sharp decline over a mere half decade—does suggest indoor pastimes are eclipsing time running around in the woods. And I am struck by how much suburban sprawl is pushing “real” woods farther and farther away. But like you—unless I’m reading into your question—I suspect there’s plenty of nostalgia at work, too.


Washington: I am really puzzled by two recent developments, reported in The Post: a few days ago there was an article on how a Virginia high school instituted a strict no-touch policy for kids (even hugging and high-fives are illegal there); and just today I read another article on how the District is proposing an even earlier curfew for young people (including 17-year-olds!) starting at 10 p.m. What do you make of these draconian measures targeted at kids, in a misguided attempt to keep them out of trouble, mind-boggling in their strictness? Va. School’s No-Contact Rule Is a Touchy Subject(Post, June 18)

Ann Hulbert: Those do sound like pointlessly draconian measures. I’ve been struck before that it’s often an appealing strategy to get tough on kids, because it can be the quick fix, which in fact often only makes the problem worse. How are school administrators, who evidently don’t feel much in control of the school culture, going to calibrate punishments for infractions of the no-touch policy, I wonder. And such an early curfew only begs to be violated.


Arlington, Va.: In both your story, and a related Washington Post story, organized sports are exluded when talking about playtime. I don’t understand this perspective. In neither story is it explained. Was time spent running around with friends not worthwhile (as playtime or nature time) if a coach was nearby? I played soccer and ran because they were fun. “Organized” or not, fun = play.

Ann Hulbert: I think that’s a very good point. In part, I think Richard Louv’s interest is in a more untamed natural experience—not on a groomed field, engaged in rule-bound sport. He worries kids are losing touch with green, unstructured being out of “civilization.” And fun though soccer is, kids aren’t jumping over brooks or just wandering on paths, focusing on their unfamiliar surroundings. It’s a more romantic vision of childhood.


Crystal City, Va.: I’m 27 and we often were left unsupervised outside as long as there were 9-year-olds or 10-year-olds around. We also could bike all over the neighborhood. This was pretty much in suburbia, but we were not limited to the back roads. I don’t recall not being able to entertain myself, with tag or roleplaying TV shows or just exploring. The areas around Washington seem alot more busy than the places I grew up, however. Is there a city/not city divide in this?

Ann Hulbert: Like you, I’d love to see a clearer breakdown in the surveys of how children spend their time and where they play in the United States. Is there a convergence of indoor-focused play, or do kids spend their time very differently if they live around DC or, say, in rural Maine? I believe there’s going to be a television documentary this fall on where kids play, and I hope we’ll learn more from that.


Bethesda, Md.: I have twin boys who are 13 and they definitely work harder and more is required of them in school than was required of me when I was growing up in the ‘70s. The flip side of this is that they also have opportunities I never had as a youngster. They attend various day camps during the summer that include sailing, music, sports, and Web site and video design to name a few. During the year we take one or two vacations that have included trips to the West Coast, Southwest, New England and up and down the East Coast. During each of these trips, we spend lots of time as a family outside exploring the area and taking in the local sites through hiking, swimming and/or sightseeing. These camps and vacations would have been financially out of reach (and outside the norm) for most families when there was only one wage earner in the household 25 or 30 years ago.

I don’t think this generation of kids has it worse, I think it is just different. Overscheduling can create its own problems — i.e. the inability/difficulty that kids have in entertaining themselves without something scheduled. But my husband and I try hard to allow our boys downtime, turn off the TV and require them go outside regularly (we went to lots of parks and playgrounds when they were younger) not to mention the sports that occupy the better part of our weekends during the school year.

I think every family has to figure out what works for them on a daily basis, and it doesn’t have to include vacations to distant places — it can be outings and day trips to nearby sites. But to hear “kids aren’t getting outside enough or having enough fun,” I’m not buying it. Parents don’t need one more thing to feel guilty about. Come on over to our house, we’re having lots of fun!

Ann Hulbert: It sounds pretty great at your house! For the upper middle class, it’s definitely true that an ever more child-focused array of recreational options are out there, and lots of them give kids great experiences. Without being too nostalgic, though, I think you do suggest what some people feel has been lost: the notion of “downtime” as just part of normal kid life, not itself an interlude in a scheduled life. And I think some lament the loss of what goes along with that: an expectation of self-entertainment, an ability to deal with boredom.


Washington: I thought the article was pretty good, but the fact of the matter is this: I just earned my MBA and moved into a director position with 24 reports. My wife is a medical doctor and part of a small practice. We lucked into a house with a $2,000 mortgage. I drive one 3-year-old car with $10,000 left on the loan. I would love for my son to have more free playtime with kids, but I’d like someone, anyone, to explain how it can happen when daycare costs $1,000 per kid in Washington and a legal nanny costs about $2,500 per month.

A house with a big yard in my parents’ neighborhood sold for $2.2 million, so I’m sticking in our townhouse with a tiny yard. I talked to my parents about parking near my office — if all four of us took the Metro in to work, school and back it would be about $12 per day or $240 per month. Parking at my wife’s building is $275 per month. Parking at my building is $215 per month. In that respect, $215 per month for parking is cheap! I think about having my kids stay at my sister’s rural place, but her husband and kids use the N Word and other rural, racist garbage. Every time I think of getting out of the rat race, but I run into pure ignorance coming from the exurbs. Where are the carefree suburban non-racist days of my youth?

Ann Hulbert: I wonder what child care arrangement you have managed to find. I’m hoping that wherever your kids are, they’re finding time to play—and other kids to play with. What can get lost in the lament for lost open spaces is the fact that there’s plenty to do, too, in not very big indoor spaces—and out on sidewalks, too. And with any luck, one benefit of the non-suburban life is that there are other kids within walking distance. Still, the trials of arranging a good day care set up can be enormous, I know, and a source of constant second-guessing.


Castro Valley, Calif.: This (excellent) discussion reminds me of Neil Postman’s argument in “The Disappearance of Childhood” — that the line between childhood and adulthood is blurred, in part, because grownups are less grown-up. At some level, they want to horn in on kids’ activities because they don’t quite outgrow them. Do you see this as a factor?

Ann Hulbert: I think the question of the blurring of child and adult worlds is fascinating. It’s surely true that plenty of the nostalgia about old-fashioned play is adult projection at this point—a response to the opposite kind of adult projection earlier, which Postman wrote about: the expectation that kids join in adult sophistication. What strikes me as the most depressing convergence is that, old and young alike, we all spend so much of our time being consumers, which can leave too little left over for much else that’s fun—either adult fun, or kid fun.


Fort Worth, Texas: What do you think of the Montessori method, with its emphasis on “work” rather than “play”? Is play-based childcare better, or just different from Montessori-based? Montessori turns 100 — what the hell is it?(Slate, May 19)

Ann Hulbert: My general view is that being too wedded to, or too critical of, any particular child rearing or educational system is probably a mistake. There are great Montessori schools, and kids who love them. There are also many other great ways of working play into school in more, well, playlike ways, which may suit other kids—and other parents—better. You choose what you think fits your setup best, which may well turn out to be something very practical, not philosophical at all, like which school is closest.


Ann Hulbert: Thanks very much for joining me. It’s been fun—play, not work.