The Problems of Boys and the Demise of Independent Play

Due to the demise of pick-up sports games, boys' lives have changed significantly.  Their social and cognitive advancement has suffered as well.

Boys aren’t doing very well when compared to girls these days. Far fewer boys go to college (42% vs. 58%), twice as many boys have been diagnosed with attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder or a learning disability, and two times as many eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-old males abuse alcohol as do females of the same age. The list could go on (see this article for more), but the fact remains that boys of all racial and socio-economic backgrounds are doing worse than their female counterparts.

Theories abound as to why this is the case. Some people point to changes in the education system that make school less compatible with boys’ nature. Others point to all the special help and attention that girls have been getting over the past few decades.

I have my own theory to explain at least part of the problem. I contend that the sharp decrease in independent children’s play that has occurred in the past few decades has had a larger negative impact on boys than girls. In decades past, large groups of boys pulled off major feats of social organization and competitive struggle on a daily basis through their self-organized games. Today, boys play alone or in very small groups, or they participate in sports games administered by adults.A study published in 1978 by Janet Lever (1) described how boys’ play, due to their participation in team sports, was significantly more “complex” than that of girls. Complexity was defined in six dimensions:

  1. role differentiation: Team sports have multiple different roles. Traditional girls’ play, such as hopscotch, does not.
  2. player interdependence: In baseball, for instance, the whole field of players awaits the pitcher’s pitch.
  3. size of group: Team sports demand a large number of players. Girls traditionally play more one-on-one.
  4. explicitness of group goals: Formal games have a recognized endpoint, but play like jumprope lasts as long as the players like.
  5. number and specificity of rules: Baseball or basketball are much more complex than, say, tag, and therefore employ more strategy and legalistic interpretation.
  6. team formation: Forming teams and managing the interrelationships inside them is an important social task.

Lever enumerates numerous advantages that this sort of play imparts for boys as they become adults. “The rule structure encourages strategic thinking. Team sports also imply experience with clear-cut leadership positions.” She writes how “boys were seen quarreling all the time, but not once was a game terminated because of a quarrel and no game was interrrupted for more than seven minutes.” The boys even seemed to enjoy the debates over rules. Thus, Lever writes, “It can be argued that complex games are an early and effective training ground from which girls have traditionally been excluded.”

Carol Gilligan (2) cites Lever’s results and concludes that boys’ games equip them with a greater level of moral reasoning than girls. Vaughter, Sadh, and Vozzola(3) write that the kind of play girls engage in “fosters the development of care-based reasoning, and team play fosters the rights-based reasoning capacities in children.”

Two important changes have occurred since Lever’s landmark study in the 1970s. First, far more girls have become involved in team sports, thanks in part to the studies cited above. Second, control of all youth team sports have shifted from children to adults. Children hardly ever play team sports on their own. Thus, girls have partially “caught up” to boys in participation in team sports, and the quality of learning and character development that boys gained from team sports has been significantly reduced.

Practically every day in the 1970s and before, groups of boys on their own formed teams, created improvised rules to accommodate special circumstances, settled rule-based conflicts, and designed and implemented strategies to win. Today, they hardly do this at all.

It is beyond the scope of this article to draw a direct link between this change and the problems of boys today, but I will offer some possibilities here. From far before team sports existed, back to the days when males hunted and females gathered, boys have self-organized into large groups and engaged in complex group behavior.

Today, boys are a bit lost because they don’t have the opportunity to do this. They’re either shut in a house in front of a screen or playing team sports that supervised by adults. If I’m right, we need to get groups of boys out of the house, playing on their own, in order for them to find the social and cognitive abilities that are locked up inside them.

(1) Lever, J. “Sex Differences in the Complexity of Children’s Play and Games” American Sociological Review, 43, 1978, pp. 471-83.
(2) Gilligan, C. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1993.
(3) Vaughter, R., Sadh, D., and Vozzola, E. “Sex Similarities and Differences in Types of Play in Games and Sports,” Psychology of Women Quarterly, 18, 1994, pp. 85-104.

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One Response to The Problems of Boys and the Demise of Independent Play

  1. Barbara Saunders says:

    Girls in prep schools, groomed in the past to be the wives of powerful men and in the present to be high achievers in their own right, have traditionally been exposed to team sports in the manner of boys’ play as described in the article.

    As far as “supervised team sports,” I think it’s changed dramatically over the years. I participated on well-run teams coached by educators who taught the skills and the rules and then stood back. This was vastly different from the scenarios I read about, with paid independent coaches and (sometimes inappropriate) over-involvement on the part of parents.