MAXWELL:  Child’s play: a thing of the past?

11/15/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Nearly 100 years ago, Swedish author and reformer Ellen Key wrote The Century of the Child. The book argued that the 20th century would liberate children from the demeaning shackles of the past, creating a world where, for example, they would be free to play rather than work in fields and factories, enjoy good health instead of dying prematurely from infectious diseases.

In many ways, Key’s prediction has played out in the United States: Modern medicine has all but eliminated childhood diseases; counseling has replaced the strap; universal education has replaced labor as the norm.

Beginning in the 1970s, however, many U.S. scholars and authors began to notice that the nation’s attitude toward child rearing _ even childhood itself _ was changing for the worse. One of the first alarms came in a 1983 book, Children Without Childhood, in which Marie Winn argued that childhood was slowly vanishing. Neil Postman confirmed Winn’s findings in his 1994 book, The Disappearance of Childhood.

Now, as 2000 nears, a University of Michigan Institute for Social Research study indicates that childhood, as we know it, may be more threatened than Key and Postman believed and may prove that The Century of the Child had a false thesis. According to the study, as summarized in the New York Times, American children, 13 years old and younger, as compared to those 16 years ago, spend more time studying and doing household chores than eating, watching TV and just being kids.

The biggest source of the problem, said Sandra Hofferth, a University of Michigan sociologist, is that busy parents are transferring the squeeze on their time, along with the troubles caused by it, to their children.

“Children’s lives have become increasingly structured,” Hofferth told the New York Times. “Kids are feeling the time crunch, just like their parents are. They are spending more time in school and preschool. As a result, something has to give at home. What gives is unstructured play _ tag, hide-and-seek, board games _ all the things that children do.”

Experts see pitfalls in the trend of replacing unstructured activities with structured ones. Instead of naturally organizing their own games of stickball, marbles, foot races, pickup basketball and playing with dolls, children are being forced to accompany their parents on errands or participate in organized sports such as soccer. And if they are not under the direct control of an adult, most children are studying.

Some of the report’s specific findings of today’s children ages 3 to 11 are startling:

On average, they spend six hours a day in preschool or school compared to four hours in 1981, when a similar study was conducted.

In 1997, they spent an average of six hours a week doing household chores. In 1981, that figure was two and a half hours a week.

The Michigan study indicates a 50 percent overall increase in the number of hours girls and boys spend in organized sports. It also shows a 30-minute decrease each day in time spent in unstructured play and outdoor activities.

Another surprising finding indicates a sharp drop in the number of hours children spend watching TV, which some experts consider a form of free play. In 1981, they spent 15 hours 12 minutes a week in front of the tube. Today, 12 hours 5 minutes.

In addition to having their free time squeezed at home, children are seeing play eliminated from the public school as well. Nationwide, recess _ when children romp, invent their own rules, solve problems and associate with peers without adult intervention _ is becoming a thing of the past. In Florida, the move is on to keep children in school longer and test them more often, thus further curtailing playtime.

Each new encroachment on play shortens the length of childhood, jeopardizing children’s well-being, wrote noted psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim shortly before his death in 1990: “A hundred years ago the span of childhood was more than 10 or 11 years; now the years from about 5 or 6 to 13 years constitute childhood _ at best some eight years.

“So while childhood has not disappeared, it has been cut nearly in half and, what is worse, even those few years are encumbered by adult concerns. Today’s children are too often cheated out of their childhood because too many parents (and the media) worry them with adult problems. . . .”

The Michigan researchers see no immediate letup in the diminution of childhood in America as the number of duel-earner families increases and as schools push to eliminate play in return for academic achievement. Structure, of course, is essential. But at what price in relation to the long-term health of the nation’s children?

Bettelheim, who studied child development for more than 70 years, aptly captured the essence of play and why we should recommit ourselves to protecting it: “Besides being a means of coping with past and present concerns, play is the child’s most useful tool for preparing himself for the future and its tasks. . . . Through his play, the child expresses what he would be hard-pressed to put into words.”