April 16, 2012

Play in the First Degree

Dear Blogland Mammas and Papas,
     I stumbled upon this article from Harvard.edu a few days ago through Pinterest (yes, I am back in full-on Pinning mode with the new ToS) and I haven't been able to get it out of my mind.

Einstein May Never Have Used Flashcards, but He Probably Built Forts

     Though it was first published several years ago, the writer's message is just as pertinent, if not more so, today. To summarize, the article is discussing the excessive, competitive nature of early childhood education today and the lack of time (and space) kids are allowed for free, imaginative, exploration play. Combined with the pre-defined, brain-numbing, electronic, plastic crap (sorry, strong feelings here) toys that fill the closets and toy chests of the modern American child, this pseudo-education of memorize, calculate and regurgitate is dulling children's senses to the wonder and beauty of life, of nature, and of their own potential. Focusing specifically on the deficit of natural, outdoor play space and time, the author (Lory Hough) quotes Elizabeth Goodenough (love that name), creator of the PBS documentary series Where Do the Children Play? and author of the book Secret Spaces of Childhood as saying,

“It shows the atrophy of adults who don’t know how to enjoy time or the outdoors, especially with children,” says Goodenough. “What started as a survival skill — building shelters and going out into the world — doesn’t exist anymore. Everything we do now is many times removed from the natural world. That’s why some kids say they’d rather be indoors where the [power] outlets are.”

    I can't tell you how spot-on I think her word choice is there. Atrophy. A muscle that used to work, but through disuse and neglect has become weak and is now dead. (That book, by the way, is so on my must-read list.)
    Now, before this post starts sounding too much like a ranting newspaper editorial, let me get back to being me here for a moment and tell you, Mammas and Papas (no, not the band-- YOU), how...hopeful this made me feel. 
     Did she just say hopeful? 
     Yup. Hopeful. And grateful and yes, I will tell you why. Because if it's being written about, it's being talked about. And if it's being talked about, it's being thought about, and if enough talking and writing and thinking goes on and spreads and grows, that's what makes a change. I am not naive enough to dream that every parent in America is reading articles like this (and I know that there are so many other sources for similar ideas out there) and saying, "Huh. I think I'll change the way I'm raising my children," but some are. And those parents who already held these beliefs and standards (and there are so many!) for their children are feeling encouraged by the knowledge that there are other parents out there like them, and there is something we, as a parent community can do to change the culture of apathy and atrophy that has become the norm. 
     Now on to the grateful part. Reading this article ignited in me a bright resurgence of appreciation for the childhood (imperfect though it may have been) I had and the parent it has helped me to be. I am grateful I had parents who gave a big, fat, flat-out NO to the option of a cable t.v. subscription until I was nearly 12 years old, and an even bigger, fatter flat-out NO to any kind of video or computer game system in our home. Ever. I think I played Tetris on our super-modern MS DOS computer maybe...5? 6 times?...throughout the entire course of my childhood. Not only did they say no to the same things that Brian and I now, for the most part, say no to as parents, but they said yes to things that were and still are sooooo much more important than Super Mario (my generation) or Angry Birds (hello, here and now). 
     Like forts. Under-the-kitchen-table forts, closet forts, cardboard-barrels-and-boxes-in-the-backyard forts...if my sisters and I could imagine it, we were, generally, allowed to build it. This is something I try so hard to remember when my little ones come to me with construction plans. It's not about the mess, or the small space we live in, or the chairs that won't be available at dinner time because they are being used as cave walls and castle gates and pirate ships. It's about nurturing that vision of-- whatever it is-- they see so clearly and so vividly in their passionate minds, and allowing them to make choices and take actions that will result in not only a physical manifestation of their own imaginings, but an experience in trial and error and, ultimately, problem-solving success.  
      My parents said yes to being outside. In fact they often said Go.Outside.Now. :-) And while we knew our physical boundaries (the stop sign in one direction down the road...the rope swing over the ditch bank in the other), we were blessed to live in an open, rural neighborhood with space to run free and acres upon acres of land that became whatever my sisters and I imagined it to be. Climbing trees and finding secret spaces under pine boughs, swinging on weeping willow vines and sucking nectar from honey-suckle blossoms in whomever's yard we might be in were things never forbidden to us. Not by our parents, not by our grandparents who were our neighbors, and not by our other neighbors, many of whom were elderly couples who, I believe, understood the value and beauty of a neighborhood where children could play freely and without fear. Brian and I don't, right now, live in a neighborhood where that is possible. But, to count our blessings, we do have a big yard. We do have access to forests and meadows and gullies nearby. And while we can't send our kids out beyond our yard with a "come home for dinner when it gets dark," as my parents so often did, we can take them out to the woods and rivers and trails and trees ourselves, and ensure the non-atrophy of their earth connection as well as ours.
     We can say yes, as my parents did, to sidewalk chalk and mud. To eating and reading and, when the weather is warm enough, even sleeping outside. We can choose parks that are more than "austere concrete and plastic gyms" (Goodenough) and we can support the preservation of open, undeveloped space in our community. Someday, Brian and I can choose to buy a home in a neighborhood  where our children can be children, in the truest, wildest sense; where they can learn to be who they are. And we can, now and always, remember to uphold unstructured playtime as their greatest means of education and self-discovery, and hope, always hope, that more and more parents will do the same.



  1. ah, I am once again reminded of why we are good friends and also why I admire you so much. This is a topic that I am adamant about. I did not grow up with a TV and I think it has shaped me into the creative person that I am. I also had a massive wild field behind my house that I spent countless hours, days and imaginings there. We build forts, made bows and arrows, climbed trees and our feet and imaginations ran free. And I have sought out the same things for my kids. Media is restricted, though not banned. They are able to walk to and from school which I am grateful that it is possible and safe for them to do. And we have a wild area adjacent to our street that I helped my kids built a secret hideout in. I helped with the very beginning construction, but they have absolutely taken over and made it their own. I am quite sure I have many, many failings as a parent elsewhere, but I have tried to give them free reign with the outdoor adventures. By giving them as much outdoor independence as they can handle (and teaching them how to be safe) and letting them go for it.

    Great post Amber! (sorry for taking up so much space..)

    1. Take as much space as you want. I love your words (and you) my dear. <3

  2. Thank you so much for posting this, it's a much needed affirmation. And she doesn't really give any age ranges in the article, but the older my kids get (oldest is now 13), the more I realize that they still need this kind of time.