The Neville Chamberlain of Free Play

This is Neville Chamberlain, appeaser of Nazis.  If he were a parent today, I'm sure he'd have his kids scheduled to the max outside the home, and addicted to video games and social networks inside.

“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 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.

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11 Responses to The Neville Chamberlain of Free Play

  1. Morgan says:

    Hi Mike

    I’ve just written something on this too – good to hear your advocacy of free play too!

    I worry sometimes that when I say I’m a playworker, instead of people asking what that is they’ll start assuming that they know… Eep.

  2. Janice says:

    I don’t think we’ve lost David Elkind as a major advocate for free play, Mike. I’m not a fan of this recess coaching business either – but it’s only recess. And at least these kids are getting recess, which has been cut back or eliminated in schools all over the country.
    As Elkind says in his article, “In any case, recess coaching is a vastly better solution than eliminating recess in favor of more academics. Not only does recess aid personal development, but studies have found that children who are most physically fit tend to score highest on tests of reading, math and science.”
    The lucky kids get maybe 1/2 hour of recess a school day – so at most 90 hours of recess coaching a year – compared to 4,000+ waking hours of out-of-school time a year. Lets keep advocating for free play during those non-school hours. If more parents become true believers in the importance of free play, the schools will follow eventually.

  3. Bernie_DeKoven_FB says:

    There are probably many different models for helping to free play. For example, instead of adult intervention, there could be more of an emphasis on adult participation. Kids are generally very willing to include adults in their games. For adults, it’s an honor and an invitation to sharing some wonderfully deep delights.

  4. mark_powell says:

    I agree this is not a fair characterization of Prof. Elkind. Sounds like you might be indulging in a little sensationalism perhaps, Mike??

  5. Mike Lanza says:

    Mark – I agree that David Elkind has been one of the most effective advocates of free play. That’s why I’m so profoundly disappointed by his op-ed in the NY Times. If he doesn’t retract what he wrote there, we must acknowledge that this piece diminishes the impact of the rest of his work.

    How could a real free play advocate make the following statement – “We have to adapt to childhood as it is today, not as we knew it or would like it to be”?

  6. Bernie_DeKoven_FB says:

    That particular quote, by itself, could prove very instructive to very many people. There are always those who tend to idealize childhood, often at a disservice to the realities of what our children experience. Today’s children eat differently, are entertained differently, play different games than we did when we were kids. Even though the games of our youth are truly gifts to today’s children, and they receive them gleefully, they live and play under a whole new set of conditions. Childhood of today is not as we knew it, and, for most of us, not as we would like it to be.

  7. mpjoe says:


    It seems to me that free play doesn’t have to mean free of adults. In the context of recess in schools, it would seem unreasonable and unwise to leave school children completely on their own.

    Given the some for of adult supervision is needed, the more important point is what kind is best. You yourself conceded that it is possible for adult involvement to enable more free play. I don’t know Playworks personally, but at least conceptually it could encourage free play.

    Personally, I volunteer for “yard duty” at my daughter’s local elementary school Encinal and I see mostly free play. I pretty much just wander around observing. Occasionally, I need to help someone who scrapes a knee or get dragged to admire some interesting sand sculpture or volcano. And rarely though importantly I have to enforce a safety rule or break-up a tussle that gets out of hard. And no adults are there to initiate or lead any preset activity.

    I am a big believer in children learning to initiate their own activities and having the freedom to explore. On the other hand, I think children also need learn boundaries and obey safety rules. These are not mutually exclusive and in fact, often the combination of learning and exploring social boundaries are what ultimately shapes one’s value system, which I think is equally important to learning to be creative and self-motivated.


  8. Mike Lanza says:

    Bernie – Certainly, we need to acknowledge the present culture in which we live. However, “sticking to your guns” is also considered a virtue. How much we do the former versus the latter depends on the strength of the present trend versus our deeply held belief. I *strongly* believe that free play is still very viable in the 21st Century. It’s happening in my Playborhood, and I see it happening in pockets all over the US. In addition, the “free play movement” is picking up steam. This is no time to surrender.

  9. recessdoctor says:

    Kudos for this wonderful blog post. I agree completely that free play is critical to a child’s development. I believe that “all kids” need free play opportunities and especially in the school environment.

    Its a dangerous path we embark on when we say, “some kids in some schools” and begin to sort children in that manner.

    Thanks for taking a stand.

  10. Anabel says:

    I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I totally agree that children need free play, and my own children certainly get plenty of it. On the other hand, I think there does come a point when a little adult assistance can come in handy.

    For example, a friend of mine used to be a P.E. teacher in an elementary school. He tells a story about 4th graders that shocked me, and it is related to your example of a half-court basketball game being child-structured play. One day he tried to get the kids to just play a pick-up style game of kickball, but the kids had never played a pick-up game and had absolutely no idea how to go about it. They had always had adults around to organize and lead games, so they were totally clueless. They certainly knew HOW to play, but they didn’t even know how to divide up into teams without an adult!

    On one hand, the story goes to prove the point that free play for children is essential. Definitely. On the other hand, I am extremely pleased that my friend decided to teach them some tools that would allow them to play pick-up games in the future. In the past, the older kids would show the younger kids how to pick teams, or how to referee their own games. Nowadays many kids do need to be taught or shown (even better) how to do things that we take for granted.

    I think one of the things that I have a hard time with in this conversation is getting a bead on what “most kids” might need. The people who are commenting on this article clearly have some education on the matter and support children’s free play. But we don’t represent a reasonable sample of the American population. Sure, MY kid gets free play time and can occupy herself, and YOUR kid does too, but what about all the kids whose parents don’t or can’t make time for their kids to have free play time?

    What about those kids (and there are a lot of them) who have gone from structured full-time day care to full-time preschool to mainstream school with structured after-school programs, because their parents are working to make ends meet? They come home, and like most Americans, they eat dinner, watch some TV or play video games, and go to bed. Weekends are full of errands, (organized) birthday parties, swimming lessons/soccer practice/etc, church/synagogue, and homework. It’s a very full life for everyone involved. Whole schools are full of kids who fall into this category. So we shouldn’t be surprised or offended if the kids don’t know what to do when they ARE given free time. A 30 minute recess is not enough time to make up for the hours and hours of learning and knowledge about what to do with themselves and each other that they’ve missed already.

    Which is where bullying comes in. It’s a pretty major problem. And while Elkind mentions “some kids in some schools”, he might be right. I used to work on the same campus as a private school full of very wealthy children, and bullying was a huge issue that the staff was having a very hard time combating. Maybe “some kids in some schools” are actually very well off kids in well-toed neighborhoods. Maybe, for once, an article is pointing out (admittedly unclearly) that rich kids are causing problems and we need to address it. It can’t be an easy thing to point out to the readership of the NY Times. And I would be very sad if my child’s free time at school was taken up with trying to avoid the bullies who are really just bored kids looking for something to do. How ironic would it be if bullying ended up continuing in a school because a parent argued against a program like Playworks in favor of free play?

    I agree that having adults run a structured recess program would be a terrible thing to do. BUT I also think it would be unfair to the kids to not hand them the tools they need to utilize their free time in ways that they might enjoy, such as a pick-up game of kickball or basketball. The older kids aren’t going to teach them those tools — it’s up to us, the adults. Those of us who are parenting now are the last generation of “kids” who know how to play. It’s not pretty, it’s not ideal, and I don’t like it, but maybe we have a responsibility to pass along those free play tools.

  11. Mike Lanza says:

    Anabel – I think you and I are in total agreement. I do admit in my article that a bully can make play at recess impossible, so safety does need to be monitored. (However, I do believe that even safety monitors often go too far due to liability concerns.) Recess coaches are far more than just safety monitoring. In fact, PlayWorks’ coaches are far more than normal coaches. They are like drill sergeants with smiles on their faces, barking out orders almost constantly.

    As for teaching kids how to play pick-up games, this is a very important priority of mine. In fact, I’ll be spending a week at a neighborhood summer camp trying to teach this well enough so that kids will do it all summer after I leave (wish me luck!!!). So, I’m not against all “coaching” by any means, but I’d much rather have parents do it than paid employees because people with jobs don’t back off and stop working when they feel that they’ve done a good job. So, paid employees will just feed a dependency and keep on coaching.