Conventional wisdom says animals raised in captivity can’t survive in the wild. They’re accustomed to a life where danger is minimal, food is ample and play isn’t the unfettered free-for-all nature intended. They don’t know how to fend for themselves and they can’t relate to their own species.
Can it be much different for the highest order of animal? If the young are sheltered, cushioned, protected from every possible danger, real and imagined? If every decision is made for them? If their every encounter with peers is planned and scheduled and refereed by elders?
No, many early childhood experts say, it’s not that different. We’re raising our young to look outside themselves for direction, to panic at the suggestion of uncertainty and to think inside the box their parents, teachers and society put them in. So what happens when they’re on their own, forced to navigate and negotiate through life as adults in a world where they aren’t the center of anybody’s universe?
A lot of the problem comes down to the serious of lack of play. Free play, to be precise. The kind without structure, rules, time limits or goals (at least not the long-term kind). The kind of play that was the norm when moms stayed home because one income was enough, when fears were focused across oceans instead of across the street and when kids were free to roam and explore and get hurt and get into fights and make up all on their own.
“Over the past half century or so, in the United States and in some other developed nations, opportunities for children to play, especially to play outdoors with other children, have continually declined,” wrote Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology at Boston College and author of the widely used textbook “Psychology.” “Over the same half century that play has declined, the mental health of children and adolescents has also declined.”
In his article — The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology — Gray says anxiety, depression, feelings of helplessness and narcissism have continually increased. Even more troubling, “Between 1950 and 2005, the suicide rate for U.S. children under age 15 quadrupled, and that for people between ages 15 and 24 more than doubled.”
Gray was guest editor of the latest issue of the American Journal of Play, a peer-reviewed publication for educators, psychologists, play therapists, sociologists, anthropologists, folklorists, historians, museum professionals, toy and game designers, policy makers and others who are serious about playing. Gray and several other authors draw the distinction between free play and structured play — organized sports and activities directed by adults and designed to teach something specific.
Beverly Cline Wiginton, director of East Tennessee State University’s Child Study Center, says Gray is right to be concerned. “It’s not surprising,” she said of Gray’s contention all work and no play makes for a stressful life.
“It’s something we’ve been saying for years. Free play gives kids a chance to make their own choices,” Wiginton said. But if parents and teachers and nannies are making all decisions, “kids learn to wait for adults to tell them what to do. ” With free play, she says, “Kids have the opportunity to learn life skills — how to get along, how to figure out things and to not let fear of failure stop them from taking chances and trying new things.”
When Wiginton was growing up in Johnson City in the 1960s, she and her fellow Baby Boomers had the run of the neighborhood. “We’d leave home after breakfast, eat lunch wherever we happened to be and go home for dinner. Every family had its own version of a dinner bell,” she said. “In between we made up our own games, we learned to get along, we got hurt, we got dirty.”
Wiginton is a firm believer in value of getting dirty, so much so that she threw a local version of international “Mud Day” at the Jonesborough Farmers Market in May to combat “biophobia.” Mud Day is pretty much what the name implies, kids playing in mud of assorted consistencies.
“Kids are disconnected from nature,” Wiginton said. The bombardment of coverage of tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes and tornadoes is enough to make anybody afraid of nature, especially if the only exposure is at a distance.
Psychology professor Peter Gray says play helps children:
— Develop interests
— Learn to make decisions and solve problems
— Learn to use self-control
— Learn to regulate their emotions
— Make friends and learn to get along as equals
— Experience joy
“Play is, first and foremost, done for its own sake.”
— Peter Gray