Kerry McDonald is a mom of four playful children and author of the new book, Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom (Chicago Review Press, 2019). On Twitter she's @kerry_edu.
Preserving Childhood Play Is Increasingly An Act of Resistance
When we moved to our current home five years ago, it coincided with a surge of families with young children in our urban neighborhood. On afternoons and weekends, the sidewalks swelled with children’s play: street hockey, catch, bike-riding, chalk-drawing, bubble-blowing. The play was spontaneous and completely child-driven. An older kid or two would head outside with a ball or a puck and soon more kids congregated, fanning out into various groups. Parents were nearby, watching to make sure their littlest ones didn’t run into the street towards oncoming traffic, but the adults never directed the children’s play. It reminded me of my own childhood growing up in the late-1970s and ‘80s, before free play had been ousted by structured extracurriculars and adult-led enrichment activities. In fact, older neighbors who grew up on our street remarked at how happy they were to see children once again playing freely in the neighborhood, as they and their children did decades ago. Play was back.
Then one day we received a note in our mailbox. It was from the graduate students who lived across the street and studied at nearby Harvard University. They were finding it difficult to study due to the afternoon noise of children’s play. They asked: Could we outline a weekly playdate schedule and give it to them ahead of time so they would know when the children would be outside?
We gently told them that we hadn’t violated any city noise ordinances and that the neighborhood children would likely be outside playing every afternoon and weekend, with parents nearby for the little ones. They didn’t say anything more to us about playdate schedules, but we learned later that these college students were studying urban planning! A generation of children accustomed to scheduled play grows up to become policymakers and parents who have no idea of the characteristics and benefits of free, unscheduled, unstructured neighborhood play.
In my Unschooled book, I share insights from Janice O’Donnell, longtime director of the Providence Children’s Museum in Rhode Island and founder of Providence PlayCorps, a summertime adventure playground program for inner city children. Over her long career, she witnessed the steady evaporation of free play and the negative impact it had on children’s development and well-being. She devoted the museum’s mission to play and launched the adventure playground program to reclaim neighborhood play. When I told her the story of our student neighbors, she said: “We have people in their twenties who have not played, and now they will become parents. The most important thing is to spread the value of self-directed play, and explain how our children are hurt by missing it.”
One of our neighborhood’s major hurdles to free play is the constant stream of cars on our busy city streets. We’ve managed to dodge the cars for now, but some cities are beginning to tackle this issue by encouraging the formation of “play streets.” In San Francisco, for example, various city streets are regularly shut down to car traffic to allow for children to play while adults chat with their neighbors. Streets in Chicago and Seattle are doing the same thing, creating designated car-free zones to encourage play and community-building. This is a simple, no-cost way for neighborhoods to foster free play and for cities to support them. Parents can take the lead in initiating play streets in their own communities.
Preserving childhood play is increasingly an act of resistance. It takes dedication and vigilance on the part of parents to allow their children to enjoy wide-open afternoons and weekends to drive their own playful learning. It takes courage to challenge the accelerating push toward extracurriculars and enrichment in favor of unstructured, child-led, free play. It takes remembering what it was like for us to play as children, and helping those who didn’t play to learn how—and why.