Timeout New York Kids

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The power of free play

Lenore Skenazy explains why kids need time for unstructured, unsupervised messin' around.

You want your children to be smart, kind, social, successful, creative, curious and not fat. Do you...

(a) Sign them up for karate
(b) Have them try out for Billy Elliot
(c) Hire a highly recommended tutor who will arm-wrestle them until they recite their times tables flawlessly, then take them outside for triathlon training in ankle weights
(d) Just let them play

If you’re at all familiar with the latest findings about childhood—or with the way rhetorical questions are posed in quiz form—you know the answer is (d).

Play turns out to be so stunningly essential, it’s like love, sunshine and broccoli all juiced together. Play helps develop the skills and attitudes we dearly hope our kids are learning in school but secretly fear they’re not: basic math, communication, leadership, fairness, flexibility, physics... Yes, physics. You throw a baseball and learn about speed, force and the physical properties of windows. Also sometimes the price of windows, so let’s toss in economics.

Bizarrely, something this fun and formative (and free!) is disappearing faster than polar bears in an Al Gore PowerPoint presentation. In fact, that’s the only reason I’m pleading for play right here. Go back a few generations and I would have sounded ridiculous. Play was the default setting of most youngsters. You didn’t have to encourage them to do it, or urge their parents, “Please let your little ones frolic. It is oh so developmentally worthwhile!” It was just a given: Children played. They had playtime during preschool, playtime in grade school, playtime after school.

Now? Not so much. In fact, from 1997 to 2002 the time that the average six- to eight-year-old spent in creative play declined by about a third, according to Susan Linn, whose 2008 book, The Case for Make Believe, is the bible on all of this. If you want to see what’s going on with your own eyes, put down this magazine and walk around your neighborhood. Hellooo? Where are all the kids?

Not playing. At least, not playing outside with one another in that 3-D thing we call reality. A recent survey of moms found that 71 percent of them played outside pretty much every day when they were growing up —but only 31 percent of their youngsters do. Childhood has changed in less time than it takes to say “Red rover, red rover—let’s go inside and play Halo 3.”

Who or what is to blame? Oh, pretty much every aspect of pop culture, except Tina Fey. In no particular order, the play-killers are:

Standardized tests In our quest to leave no child with a No. 2 pencil behind, our schools have been sacrificing recess and gym, even in preschool, to allot more time for reading, writing and math. Nothing wrong with those subjects, but they go down easier after kids have had a chance to play. And I know some grade-schoolers (one of them is in my living room right now) who would act a lot less like they were heading off to a lethal injection each morning if they could look forward to double recess between classes.

Abduction fear As I’ve said in these pages before, if you look at government statistics, you will find that violent crimes against children are actually plummeting. From 1993 to 2004 the national rate of sex assaults against kids went down 67 percent. The rate of aggravated assaults went down 74 percent. Here in NYC, we are back to the crime level of 1963. And yet we are more worried about crime than ever, so we don’t let our kids go outdoors and play. Instead they stay inside, either doing heaps of homework or enjoying their...

Electronics In my home, we had to install a program that automatically shuts down the PC after 30 minutes, or our kids might never eat or sleep or clean their rooms (oh, wait—they don’t do that anyway). Youngsters are spending so much time in front of one screen or another, a study found that 40 percent of babies age three months or younger are already regular TV watchers! As they get older, it becomes increasingly hard for them to go out to a neighborhood devoid of playmates when there’s an entire electronic world ready to play with them. And speaking of screen friends, the most ironic anti-play force turns out to be...

Tickle Me Elmo Well, not just him. But this Sesame Street shill is less innocent than he appears. Elmo is one of the vast army of look-at-me toys: objects that basically function the same as a TV screen. They are there to be passively consumed. When a toddler presses the button, Elmo laughs himself silly (or sings, or hokey-pokeys, depending on the model).

You’d think that because the little red guy hails from an educational TV show, he must be an educational toy. And in a way, he is: He’s educating little ones to sit there and press a button and wait to be entertained. That’s the opposite of play.

Organized activities I don’t want to sound like an absolute killjoy, but organized activities have cut down on old-fashioned play. Yes, they teach cool things like singing and skating and—my childhood passion—rug hooking. (What can I say? It was the ’70s.) In neighborhoods where it really is too dangerous to hang out at the local playground, organized activities are a godsend, keeping kids safe and social. But the one thing that children in supervised programs generally don’t do is just plain play. They follow instructions, they listen to the leader. It’s like a pleasant form of school. Play is totally different.

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