Learning Through Play: If Rats Get It, Why Can’t Kids?

Go outside and play, rat!

On Saturday I left my children home alone (glued to computer and TV screens) to listen to a group of engaging, intelligent adults debate why our children don’t — or can’t — play anymore (and by play they definitely did not mean a couple of hours of Club Penguin or Runescape on their parents’ laptop; we’re talking romping around in the woods or on the neighborhood streets).

“It’s a desperate situation that we have to have a conference about play,” said Rona Renner, executive director and host of radio program Childhood Matters, neatly summing up the irony of the status quo, and opening up a panel session which threw up some fascinating, if sometimes alarming, facts.Hooked On Nature’s founder Avery Cleary, for instance, provided a sobering statistic: that the average American child plays for less than half an hour a week outdoors, compared to 44 hours a week on electronic devices. And Dr Stuart Brown, founder of the Institute for Play, put it bluntly when he said “Play has a PR problem” before going on to describe a study of rats which proved that those that “played” (yes, even rats like games it appears) had superior survival instincts than those that did not.

The Play Around The Bay symposium, organized by the Alliance for Childhood, the Habitot Children’s Museum and Bay Area Early Childhood Funders, included a stimulating presentation by Playborhood’s very own Mike Lanza and a keynote speech by British playworker Penny Wilson. I missed this one but wish I hadn’t because apparently she spoke about London’s amazing adventure playgrounds (which for some reason I failed to discover when living there with kids for 10 years).

Another Brit, David Hawkins, one-time project manager of Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard project, spoke about working with “bad boys” a category into which he happily included himself (he was expelled from school) as well as his three sons, all of whom described as “drop-outs”. Hawkins’ latest venture is Wild Zones, a program that aims to create public outdoor spaces where children can build shelters, make trails, climb trees or dam creeks. One is shaping up on a former golf course in Santa Clara. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to turn all golf courses into wild zones?” he asked – to which the audience erupted into applause.

Just as it seemed we were going to slump into despair at the thought of all our sofa-bound kids, Patty Donald stood up and struck a high note. “When I look out of my window,” she said, “I don’t see kids’ play failing.” That’s because Donald runs the Berkeley Marina Adventure Playground which must count as one of the most exciting places imaginable for children. I know because I take my two boys there. At the playground kids as young as 7 are given tools – saws, hammer, nails and paint – and let loose, with minimal adult supervision, to create the environment of their dreams. Institutions, including the Discovery Museum and the Exploratorium, send staff to this magical place simply to observe how real “live” kids play. Has it come to this? Adults need to study children playing. A sorry state of affairs.

I missed some of the speakers – and a field trip to the adventure playground – because I had head home. After all, there were two children there who needed to be booted outdoors to play.

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4 Responses to Learning Through Play: If Rats Get It, Why Can’t Kids?

  1. Angela N says:

    How did I not know about Berkeley Marina Adventure Playground. I can’t wait to check it out.

    I love the articles and resources. I’m currently trying to organize parents in my neighborhood with the Playborhood philosophy.

  2. Tracey Taylor says:

    Angela N: you will love the adventure playground. I believe there are only two like it in the country. It was such a revelation to me when I discovered it with my two kids shortly after moving to Berkeley from the UK. Have fun!

  3. DJ MacKinnon says:

    That was a great piece Tracey. I’ll follow up on some of those links. It is sad that we have to study play in children – not sad – pathetic. When you think that for hundreds if not thousands of years children taught games to each other and now we have to step in and kick-start the whole process I can become very disheartened about our children’s futures.

    In any case – I too am working on getting a community discussion/workshop together to talk about some of these issues. It’s encouraging to know that others are doing it too.


  4. Tracey Taylor says:

    DJ: It’s easy to become despondent about this issue. Just watching kids — sometimes very young — zoned out on video games makes me both angry and sad.

    A piece in the San Francisco Chronicle last weekend reported on how children at one deprived school literally didn’t know what to do with themselves when they were turfed out into the playground. They would just mope about or get into fight.s A playworker was hired to help them learn simple games like skipping rope and four-squares.

    There is hope though. I am fortunate in that the school my children attend puts a huge emphasis on free play and it recognizes the power of play to help kids learn to deal with all sorts of situations in life.

    Also I think, as parents, we just need to wrestle back some control. Our generation is soft. It is up to us to guide our children towards play and away from passive electronic games (and believe me I say this from the heart as it is based on my personal experience!).

    Thank you for your comment.