A recent article posted on the Toronto Star web site addresses a concern for school-aged children who don’t have access to “structured programs” in the hours between the dismissal bell and the dinner-time arrival of parents returning home from work. You can read the article here. This kind of story always catches my interest because it speaks directly to the kinds of things we talk about here at Playbourhood. The difficulty, of course, is reconciling our need to protect and nurture our children with our desire to just “let them be kids”. In other words, what is the problem we’re trying to fix, and are we fixing it right?The necessity of protecting vulnerable kids is a key focus of the study discussed in the Star’s article. It points to research that “shows the hours between 3 and 6 p.m. are a high-risk period when untended kids are most likely to engage in delinquent behaviours, sexual activity or experimenting with drugs and alcohol. They are also more vulnerable to assault.”
When I read that, I wonder what the point really is. To me, it suggests that the desire isn’t to provide kids with opportunity; it’s to surround them with constant supervision. But at what cost? Should this really be the prime consideration? It all comes down to how you provide care.
The study report suggests that “access to safe, supervised and engaging programs can get kids off the screens and couches, and into physical activity and interaction. It can also be critical in helping children develop skills, self-esteem and relationships with peers and mentors.” And that’s a great thing. But where in this scenario is the freedom for kids to be kids? Looking at the recommendations of the study, put out by an organization called Middle Childhood Matters Coalition Toronto, the focus is on providing structured programming and what amounts to an extension of the school day until parents arrive home. The Coalition’s web site talks about the need for balance by requiring physical activities as part of the program, which is vital, but nowhere do they suggest that kids be allowed to just play. What’s being overlooked is that a genuine balance also requires that freedom.
The narrow focus of studies like this set us up to fix the wrong problem. Sure kids need to be safe in those vulnerable hours between school and home. But they also need to be allowed to grow as independent and self-confident individuals. While this study provides good information there are countless others that indicate that more programming will not make better kids. In fact, the opposite is true. There’s enough programming and structure in the classroom, at the hockey arena and during music lessons. What kids really need is the opportunity to put away all that structure for a while and just be kids.
I’m all for creating a safe and secure environment for our kids. But please, let’s do it the right way.