Friday, June 22, 2007

The Paradox of Play: Are kids today having enough fun?

Our era of superachievement angst and No Child Left Behind duress is not the first time adults have worried that academic pressures are prematurely crowding out the kind of hands-on playtime that kids love. It will also not be the last time that the crusade to restore the primacy of play runs the risk of eroding the very playfulness the crusaders are eager to see more of.

The paradox of the endeavor seems all but unavoidable.

Play advocates bolster their case by proclaiming play's social, emotional, and cognitive benefits, as David Elkind has recently done in The Power of Play: How Spontaneous, Imaginative Activities Lead to Happier, Healthier Children. Yet the more successful such advocates are in their instrumental defense of play, the further they stray from an appreciation of play as precisely the opposite—a pursuit that serves children's own (not always obviously constructive) purposes, rather than the didactic designs of their elders.

It's a tension that play advocates of the past sometimes recognized, as Howard P. Chudacoff takes care to note as he traces the fate of playtime over the centuries in his forthcoming Children at Play: An American History. In the aftermath of the "playground movement" early in the 20th century, for example, reformers were forced to face up to the problem: Kids weren't flocking to the new enclosures that were supposed to lure them away from dangerous gutter games (favored especially, they felt, by immigrant children).

As a boy from Worcester, Mass., explained, "I can't go to the playgrounds now. They get on my nerves with so many men and women around telling you what to do."

This from Slate Magazine.

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