Who are We Kidding?

Putting the play back into playtime


by Matt Edens

"Christina Katerina liked things: tin cups and old dresses, worn-out ties and empty boxes. Any of those things, but mostly boxesâ.â” So begins the children's classic Christina Katerina & The Box. Written in 1971, it was one of my wife's favorites (I was more a Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel man). It is also a regular bedtime request of our three-year-old twins.

The story's message about the joys of imagination, and how parents need to let their kids be kids (even if it means messing up the nice, neat yard) came to mind this weekend. I was reading a Sunday New York Times feature about â“Putting the Skinned Knees Back Into Playtime,â” or so the title said. It seems that, in the over-scheduled, overachieving whirlwind of today's frenetic family life, â“traditional childhood games have become lost arts, as antique as the concept of idle time itself.â”

Fear, of course, is a factor: predators, lawsuits, injury or evenâ"horror of horrorsâ"testing at or below grade level. Upper-middle-class kids today don't so much grow up as embark on a rigorous 18-year regimen of self-improvement, their waking hours crammed with fulfillment and enrichment by parents casting a wary eye towards eventual college admissions. â“Activities,â” in other words, have replaced play as the preferred children's pastime. Whether the kids are actually enjoying themselves is secondary. â“Fun,â” like spinach, is supposed to be good for you. No wonder kids love video games so much. Not only are they bad for you, their virtual worlds are as close as many kids come to unrestricted freedom.

A backlash was inevitable. High-pressure modern parenting, after all, is largely an exercise in angst wherein one false move could â“ruin their future.â” So, according to the Times article, a growing number of educators, parents and child development specialists are questioning the demise of old-fashioned, unsupervised play and attempting to recapture the recesses of yesteryear. That doesn't, however, translate into simply standing at the back door and ordering the kids outside until dinnertime.

Today's champions of unsupervised playtime and simple childhood games are, â“attending play conferences, teaching courses on how to play, and starting leagues for the kinds of activities that didn't used to need leaguesâ" just, say, a stick and a ball.â” Then there's the best-selling The Dangerous Book for Boys , a Kipling-esque collection of oldâ"fashioned adventure yarns and useful tips on things like â“how to make a tree house, fold paper airplanes and skip stones.â”

The image of a dozen earnest 30-somethings taking a hopscotch class, I think, says more about the parents than it does the kids. After all, if we need remedial Red Rover instruction or Rock Skipping for Dummies , is it any surprise that our kids have lost touch with these things as well? Is this desire to wean the kids off of the Xbox and Internet really remorse over all those summer days that slipped by while we were watching cartoons and playing ColecoVision?

Or is it that, even when the kids are supposedly â“unsupervised,â” parents want to be in control? By sending their children to marbles seminars or scheduling seven-up sessions in between soccer practice and piano lessons, are they simply turning playtime into another activity? â“It won't come back naturally,â” says one parent. â“We have to introduce it. We have to support it.â”

I don't know about that. A rulebook or two might help (my three-year-olds enjoy hide and seek, but insist on telling me where they're going to hide in advance), but imagination isn't so imaginative if someone is telling you what to do.

Just last week we got the boys a great big boxâ"like Christina Katerina (it came on Grandpa's recliner)â"and turned them loose. With no real input from us, they transformed it into everything from a literal slide to an imaginary rocket ship and had a blast, despite the fact that one somehow gave himself a bloody nose.  

That little scrape makes me think The Dangerous Book for Boys fad will prove a passing fancy. Although I'm tempted to order it, just to read the legal disclaimer. But I bet there's a sequelâ" The Dangerous Videogame for Boys, where kids get in touch with their inner urchin in an adventurous virtual world that's cobbled together from Huck Finn, Treasure Island and The Little Rascals â"that will be a big seller.


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