“Recess is no longer child’s play.” This is how David Elkind began an article in the New York Times last Friday in which he endorses “recess coaches,” adults who organize and manage recess at schools.
This is quite an about-face for a man who has been a vital symbol of the free play movement. Elkind was one of the first and strongest voices in the field of academic child psychology to highlight the problem of over-controlling parents in his 1981 book, The Hurried Child. Decades later, in 2006, he published The Power of Play, a manifesto of sorts for those of us advocating free play for children.
Later in the article, he explains his about-face:
. . . as someone whose scholarly work has consistently reinforced the idea that young people need unstructured imagination time, I’d probably have been opposed to recess coaches in the past. But childhood has changed so radically in recent years that I think the trend makes sense, at least at some schools and with some students.
Hmm… So, if children need unstructured imagination time so badly, and childhood has changed so radically in recent years (to decrease unstructured imagination time precipitously), one would think that Elkind would be out there fighting even harder for children to be able to play free of adult influence.
It seems to me that Elkind is giving up, appeasing the adults who have been fighting for decades to dominate children’s lives under all sorts of banners like “safety,” “children’s fitness,” “education,” and “moral development.” I don’t think Elkind sympathizes with these folks, but he’s joining with them because he’s given up on trying to beat them.
In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made a similar gesture to Adolph Hitler when he appeased Nazi Germany, acquiescing to their takeover of the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia in return for Hitler’s worthless promise to stay out of Poland.
Now, of course, no one, including me, would put recess coaches or anyone else who wants to exert more control over children’s lives on a moral plane anywhere near the Nazis. These people have a sincere and valid concern for the welfare of children, and they are doing what they believe is best for them.
However, they believe that children need to be under more adult control to develop best. Advocates of “free play” or “unstructured play”* like myself believe that children need to be under less adult control. This is a fundamental disagreement. The stakes are extremely high. The quality of lives of our children today, the course of their future lives, and ultimately, the future of our civilization rests on this issue.
Some who think of themselves as supporters of free play claim that we need enlightened adults to step in now to help children make a transition to a culture of less adult-controlled play. Here’s Elkind’s stab at this line of thinking:
We have to adapt to childhood as it is today, not as we knew it or would like it to be. The question isn’t whether recess coaches are good or bad — they seem to be with us to stay — but whether they help students form the age-old bonds of childhood. To the extent that the coaches focus on play, give children freedom of choice about what they want to do, and stay out of the way as much as possible, they are likely a good influence.
We have to adapt to childhood as it is today? So, should we adapt to the fact that depression has dramatically increased in recent years to about 3 to 5 percent of preteens and up to 15 percent of teenagers? Should we adapt to the fact that between 16 and 33 percent of children are obese? Should we adapt to the fact that kids consume electronic media for 8-1/2 hours per day? Exactly what are we supposed to adapt to, and what can we try to change? I’m not a big fan of adapting when it comes to my children’s lives.
In the last sentence above, Elkind hopes that these recess coaches won’t interfere with children’s play. In fact, do recess coaches “give children freedom of choice?” Do they “stay out of the way as much as possible?”
I’ve attended a play session run by the staff of PlayWorks, the firm that Elkind references in his article. Based on that experience, my verdict is an emphatic “no.” PlayWorks staff do a great job of generating enthusiasm among kids and getting them to join the group and be focused. However, PlayWorks staff are very much leaders of play, not observers on the sidelines. With smiles on their faces, they yell out commands to children almost constantly, stepping aside only to encourage kids to lead the same activities they started.
Can I imagine that kids would get some benefit from PlayWorks’ play sessions? Sure, I can see kids being focused and enthusiastic. However, I strongly believe that the number one problem afflicting children in America, from the poorest to the richest, is a lack of free play – i.e. play that is free of adult control. That is clearly not something that PlayWorks offers.
I do believe that it’s theoretically possible that adults can get involved in kids’ play in a way that makes free play more possible, not less. For example, if playground bullies are terrorizing kids, no kid will want to play until adult playground monitors apprehend and punish the bullies. Also, I’ve seen very skilled “playworkers” get involved with children’s play more than playground monitors, but still seem to let children make their own play decisions, by and large.
I remain highly skeptical, however, of all efforts of adults to somehow manage children’s play. After all, if you believe, as I do, that children desperately need more freedom to do as they would like, then any adult who claims to be able to manage children’s play better needs to be ready to withdraw and quit his or her job when things are going well.
The really sad and ironic thing about this Elkind article is that it’s coming at a time in which free play is making a comeback. In 1990, the United Nations Convention on The Rights of the Child identified the “right to play” as a fundamental human right of all the world’s children. Then, the Alliance for Childhood took up the unstructured play banner in the early 2000s and has been advocating forcefully for it ever since.
In the past three years since I started Playborhood.com and have been advocating actively for children’s play, I’ve seen a very large increase in parents like me who are willing to take determined action to give their children a life of free play. Ultimately, I believe that we parents are the ones who will make free play happen because most of us will be quite happy to step back when we see our kids playing well together.
We have a long way to go still, but I am convinced that the prospects for our children having a life of free play are getting better and better. Already, I’m quite excited about the changes I’ve been able make in my kids’ lives. You can rest assured I’ll continue working hard to refine my play advocate tool set and communicate everything I learn to you. You’ll never hear me say something like “we have to adapt to childhood as it is today.” This is no time for appeasement.
* The term “unstructured play” is more widely used, but I prefer the term “free play” because children, left to themselves, are capable of creating highly structured play scenarios. In fact, this is quite desirable from a developmental point of view. An example of child-structured play is a half court pickup basketball game. The players need to agree on what is a foul, on what conditions should a turnover or defensive rebound result in the defense taking the ball back, when the game ends, what is out of bounds, etc.