The idea of Play Deficit Disorder is not new, but the argument is still relative that our children in modern times are not given ample opportunity to simply play.
An article written this month in Aeon Magazine is the most comprehensive, and best piece I have read on the subject. The gist of the article is that
“Children are suffering a severe deficit of play!”
Eloquently written by Peter Gray, “The play deficit” should be read by every parent, teacher, and pediatrician! Here are my favorite excerpts from the article:
For more than 50 years now, we in the United States have been gradually reducing children’s opportunities to play, and the same is true in many other countries. In his book Children at Play: An American History (2007), Howard Chudacoff refers to the first half of the 20th century as the ‘golden age’ of children’s free play. By about 1900, the need for child labour had declined, so children had a good deal of free time. But then, beginning around 1960 or a little before, adults began chipping away at that freedom by increasing the time that children had to spend at schoolwork and, even more significantly, by reducing children’s freedom to play on their own, even when they were out of school and not doing homework. Adult-directed sports for children began to replace ‘pickup’ games; adult-directed classes out of school began to replace hobbies; and parents’ fears led them, ever more, to forbid children from going out to play with other kids, away from home, unsupervised. There are lots of reasons for these changes but the effect, over the decades, has been a continuous and ultimately dramatic decline in children’s opportunities to play and explore in their own chosen ways.
Over the same decades that children’s play has been declining, childhood mental disorders have been increasing.
Gray describes his own childhood opportunity for free play as his “hunter-gatherer education” and accredits it for helping children develop empathy. Not only has Gray found that mental disorders have increased dramatically as a result of the lack of play, ultimately evident in suicide rates, he has also found a growth in narcissism. I think we see this evident in our cultural in general, especially when looking at politics.
A decline of empathy and a rise in narcissism are exactly what we would expect to see in children who have little opportunity to play socially.
Children can’t learn these social skills and values in school, because school is an authoritarian, not a democratic setting. School fosters competition, not co-operation; and children there are not free to quit when others fail to respect their needs and wishes.
As a teacher, I can’t say that I exactly agree with the last statement, but maybe I am feeling defensive. I have noticed that my daughter is quite interested in comparing her grades with her peers now that she is in a larger school, yet many teachers foster cooperative learning.
At play, children learn the most important of life’s lessons, the ones that cannot be taught in school. To learn these lessons well, children need lots of play — lots and lots of it, without interference from adults.
It is interesting to me that many children have lost the ability to play. They live overscheduled lives, and when finally given the opportunity for free time, they don’t know what to do with it. We have seen this evident when our kids’ friends from town come to visit our mountain home. They turn to adults to find out what they should be doing. They need entertained.
Play plays an important role in human development, just as it does in the animal kingdom. My closest association to watching this happen is with puppies. We have Akitas. We coin their puppy play “Akita Fight Club”. They are learning and practicing survival skills they would need if they were not domesticated.
This so-called ‘practice theory of play’ is well-accepted today by researchers. It explains why young animals play more than older ones (they have more to learn) and why those animals that depend least on rigid instincts for survival, and most on learning, play the most. To a considerable degree, you can predict how an animal will play by knowing what skills it must develop in order to survive and reproduce. Lion cubs and other young predators play at stalking and pouncing or chasing, while zebra colts and other prey species play at fleeing and dodging.
Groos followed The Play of Animals with a second book, The Play of Man (1901), in which he extended his insights about animal play to humans. He pointed out that humans, having much more to learn than other species, are the most playful of all animals. Human children, unlike the young of other species, must learn different skills depending on the culture in which they are developing. Therefore, he argued, natural selection in humans favoured a strong drive for children to observe the activities of their elders and incorporate those activities into their play.
So how does all of this affect education? We all want our children to be smart, but the direction towards more testing, longer school years and days, standardized education (and we are on the brink of Common Core Standards) is affecting creativity and inventiveness, skills very important in this modern age of technology. Without them, how could you create the next iPhone?
Unfortunately, as we move increasingly toward standardised curricula, and as we occupy ever more of our children’s time with schoolwork, our educational results indeed are becoming more like those of the Asian countries. One line of evidence comes from the results of a battery of measures of creativity — called the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT) — collected from normative samples of US schoolchildren in kindergarten through to 12th grade (age 17-18) over several decades. Kyung-Hee Kim, an educational psychologist at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, has analysed those scores and reported that they began to decline in 1984 or shortly after, and have continued to decline ever since. As Kim puts it in her article ‘The Creativity Crisis’, published in 2011 in the Creativity Research Journal, the data indicate that ‘children have become less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesising, and less likely to see things from a different angle’.
According to Kim’s research, all aspects of creativity have declined, but the biggest decline is in the measure called ‘creative elaboration’, which assesses the ability to take a particular idea and expand on it in an interesting and novel way. Between 1984 and 2008, the average elaboration score on the TTCT, for every grade from kindergarten onwards, fell by more than one standard deviation. Stated differently, this means that more than 85 per cent of children in 2008 scored lower on this measure than did the average child in 1984.
Social skills are also developed through play. Although recess quibbles and arguments may exasperate adults, children are learning important skills.
The reason why play is such a powerful way to impart social skills is that it is voluntary. Players are always free to quit, and if they are unhappy they will quit. Every player knows that, and so the goal, for every player who wants to keep the game going, is to satisfy his or her own needs and desires while also satisfying those of the other players, so they don’t quit. Social play involves lots of negotiation and compromise. If bossy Betty tries to make all the rules and tell her playmates what to do without paying attention to their wishes, her playmates will quit and leave her alone, starting their own game elsewhere. That’s a powerful incentive for her to pay more attention to them next time. The playmates who quit might have learnt a lesson, too. If they want to play with Betty, who has some qualities they like, they will have to speak up more clearly next time, to make their desires plain, so she won’t try to run the show and ruin their fun. To have fun in social play you have to be assertive but not domineering; that’s true for all of social life.
Watch any group of children in play and you will see lots of negotiation and compromise.
The golden rule of social play is not ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Rather, it’s something much more difficult: ‘Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.’ To do that, you have to get into other people’s minds and see from their points of view. Children practise that all the time in social play. The equality of play is not the equality of sameness. Rather, it is the equality that comes from respecting individual differences and treating each person’s needs and wishes as equally important. That’s also, I think, the best interpretation of Thomas Jefferson’s line that all men are created equal. We’re not all equally strong, equally quick-witted, equally healthy; but we are all equally worthy of respect and of having our needs met.
In school, and in other settings where adults are in charge, they make decisions for children and solve children’s problems. In play, children make their own decisions and solve their own problems. In adult-directed settings, children are weak and vulnerable. In play, they are strong and powerful. The play world is the child’s practice world for being an adult. We think of play as childish, but to the child, play is the experience of being like an adult: being self-controlled and responsible. To the degree that we take away play, we deprive children of the ability to practise adulthood, and we create people who will go through life with a sense of dependence and victimisation, a sense that there is some authority out there who is supposed to tell them what to do and solve their problems. That is not a healthy way to live.