In Jesus' Name, We Play
In a recent article, Boston College psychology professor Peter Gray argues that children today are "suffering from a severe deficit of play" that corresponds to their general loss of freedom. This stems from a variety of reasons: children increasingly attend school—or something structured a lot like school—at earlier ages and for longer hours. Adult-led activities have largely replaced child-led ones: organized sports teams, not pickup games; art lessons, not unstructured hours spent with sketchbooks and pencils or canvas and paint.
Furthermore, dangers both real and perceived—as well as changing social dynamics—keep kids under closer supervision than decades before. In New York City in the 1960s, my parents grew up with the kind of freedom that today might be considered verging on criminally negligent. My mom, at 10 or so, took the subway by herself to go to her dentist appointment; my dad spent long days playing all over the neighborhood, everyone's parents keeping an eye on everyone's kids, and mealtimes being the only things on the schedule.
Gray argues that there's a connection between these losses of freedom—which collectively reduce children's opportunities for play—and the startling increase in mental illnesses in children. The rates of generalized anxiety disorder and major depression among children are five to eight times more prevalent than they were in the 1950s using the same diagnostic tools, and the suicide rate for children under 15 has quadrupled. What's the connection between play and these frightening outcomes?
While proving causation is difficult and fraught, Gray points out that anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts are frequently connected to feelings of hopelessness and of being out of control of one's destiny and actions—in a word, trapped.
Most controversially, Gray argues that children are capable of learning best when they do so in a self-directed way—that is, when they play. It is the kind of argument that instantly infuriates teachers and baffles parents: "What are they supposed to do—just play all day? How will they function in the 'real world?'"
But Gray marshals significant research to support this claim, not least the case of Sugata Mitra, who designed a study to demonstrate the necessity of direct instruction that ended up demonstrating the opposite when street kids in a slum of New Delhi—and then kids in a remote Indian village—eventually taught themselves how to use a computer that was programmed in English even though they neither spoke English nor had a keyboard. The researchers simply watched them on a remote video screen. No one taught them. They were just playing around, and, needless to say, enjoying themselves immensely.
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