The Decline of Play

In the latest episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Jerry Seinfeld asks Sarah Jessica Parker, “Why are we such horrible parents?” and later comments that “This is probably a longer conversation about parenting… than your mother had all told in her life.” I find him and this show hilarious, and I especially love that one of his favourite themes is parents who over-parent.

I love this topic too. So when I read a tweet by Sir Ken Robinson this morning about a researcher who studied a similar topic, I became absorbed. Here’s what I found:

Here is the abstract of his paper, which is a summary of his talks:

Over the past half century, in the United States and other developed nations, children’s free play with other children has declined sharply. Over the same period, anxiety, depression, suicide, feelings of helplessness, and narcissism have increased sharply in children, adolescents, and young adults. This article documents these historical changes and contends that the decline in play has contributed to the rise in the psychopathology of young people. Play functions as the major means by which children (1) develop intrinsic interests and competencies; (2) learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control, and follow rules; (3) learn to regulate their emotions; (4) make friends and learn to get along with others as equals; and (5) experience joy. Through all of these effects, play promotes mental health.

Read or watch his compelling arguments about how we have become a worse world for children. Now, as my professorial husband pointed out, “correlation does not imply causation”. Nevertheless, it’s an intriguing argument, and it makes me sad, especially as I spend my life working on ways to improve the lives of children. But my other worry is that he makes school the enemy.   In the TEDTalk, when Gray challenges his audience to be brave enough to stand up against the continuous clamour for more school and says, “Our children don’t need more school,” the audience claps.

I have two reactions, as a parent and as an educator. As a parent, I think about our decision to move our children from a public school to Ridley College. The classroom experience was important, but so was the value placed on co-curricular activities. Their days at Ridley were so packed that we pulled them from their previous after school activities. As you can imagine, it changed our lives dramatically when we no longer spent our evenings shuttling them hurriedly from one lesson to the next activity. For high school, we chose a boarding school so that Jacob could spend more time playing with other kids. That was important to us. There are no boys his age in our neighbourhood, and he has lots of energy to burn everyday. At Lakefield College, without supervision or without being told, he chose to spend his free time playing tennis or playing down by the waterfront. I truly believe that CAIS boarding schools offer a unique opportunity for kids to experience good old-fashioned play.

As an educator, I am deeply concerned by his anti-school sentiments. My hope is that we think deeply about how to make play more of a priority. I had a glimmer of hope in one of his quick comments. He said kids don’t need more school, but he also said, “maybe they need better school.” This gives me hope because of the CAIS commitment to continuous whole school improvement.   I see our schools investing in what is best for students, and I believe our schools will focus on his challenge and find incredible opportunities to lead the way for all schools.

While I agree that today’s parents may be guilty of over-parenting, I know that our CAIS schools will not be guilty of over-schooling. And I can’t wait to see our school leaders play with this challenge.

Women Leaders in Canada

We have 47,504 students attending CAIS schools this year. Of those students, 27% attend a school that is run by a woman; and only 12% attend a co-ed school run by a woman. All of our boys schools are run by men, and four of our girls schools are run by men.

Here’s another number: Of the 25 largest co-ed CAIS schools across Canada, only one is run by a woman.


So when that Head invites me to the opening of her new campus, I had to be there. And it was a spectacular morning. Eileen Daunt, Head of Bayview Glen, spoke eloquently – as always! – about the future of education and how the new facilities will help to address many of the new demands. (The entire Moatfield Campus is outstanding, by the way, with a Learning Commons, Rooftop Patio, Contemplative Gardens, Robotics Lab, Fitness Lab, and more.) Plus the children’s choir sang beautifully (and I am a real sucker for children singing). The fact that Prince Andrew was there was a pretty nice touch…okay, it was more than a nice touch, it was impressive.

But the best part of the morning was that the Chair of the Board focused not just on the building but also on Eileen’s leadership. She said the following:

“We ARE here because of the building, for sure, but this is more than a celebration of the bricks and mortar. We are here to celebrate leadership, because it takes leadership to build something wonderful, like the amazing community we have here at Bayview Glen…. Like a great leader, Eileen Daunt has been a devoted and consistent mentor to the staff and faculty. She is a role model who leads by the best example. She is ridiculously hardworking; she is so wise and demonstrates kindness and compassion in her words and action, qualities that set her apart from all others….

I don’t know how she does it, but Eileen knows every student by name, their siblings, their parents (and I’m sure even the grandparents). I can attest to the fact that she really has a truly open door policy. I remember coming in one morning for a meeting to be greeted by an adorable Grade 2 student who had come to borrow a toonie from her, as he had forgotten that it was civies day. I need help and Mrs. Daunt will help me…”

I am happy to report that the new dining hall will be named The Daunt Dining Hall. How amazing. How many Heads have a building named for them? And how many of those buildings are named for women leaders, in co-ed schools?

I am inspired by Eileen, and her accomplishment comes at a perfect time, as over 150 educators from across Canada gather at Ridley College for the CAIS Summer Leadership Institute in early July. My hope is that more people – women in particular! – will be motivated to emulate her leadership style and lead some of Canada’s best schools.

p.s. For the record, Eileen, I would have gone to your opening even if you weren’t the only woman to run a large co-ed school.