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.

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