There’s an awful lot of depression going around these days. Have you noticed that? More and more young people are diagnosed with depression every year. One of my best buddies was diagnosed two years ago. He was the last person I’d expect. Suicide rates are also on the rise. What changed?
Play became safe. Play became sanitized. Play became regimented, adult guided, and digitized. No more learning to be careful by playing with sharp objects, climbing on rusty equipment, or jumping around on slippery rocks in stream beds.
This change may sound like a good thing to you. After all, those activities sound dangerous! And they are. That’s the point. They are dangerous and kids will fail, learn, fail, and learn again. Those pastimes are dangerous, but they also encourage teamwork, teach important basic survival skills, and promote curiosity. So, keep an eye on them, but try not interfere unless there is an impending catastrophe.
There’s an increasing body of psychological and sociological studies exploring how play influences development and happiness. In short, the studies found that it is healthiest for human beings to grow up “free range.” That is, as children we ought to play with other children and with as little adult supervision as possible. It’s how we learn to follow the rules, work as a team, self-organize, respect authority, communicate effectively, push boundaries, develop strong learning skills, destruct and construct our environment creatively, and I could keep listing the benefits, but we’d be here all day.
So, what are we doing about it?
They are not too common, yet they are starting to pop up in more places, especially New York City. These playgrounds are simulated junkyards. There’s a lot of junk lying around (big surprise), metal rods (rubber capped), blocks and planks of wood (no splinters), and oh so many rubber tires.
The children get to creatively destruct and reshape the play area as it suits them. They are also supervised constantly by park staff who are ready to patch bobo’s and avert disasters, but otherwise watch from a good distance away.
My fondest childhood memory is making a clearing in a massive briar patch that grew behind my neighbor’s house. He was delighted with the free labor, and my friends and I got a cool fort out of it to make our “club house.” I cut myself nearly every day, got poison ivy, and had to sweat for hours, days even, in the summer sun with my brothers and our friends to make the fort. Best fun I ever remember having. That was 16 years ago.
Trying, failing, overcoming failures, overcoming failures together. These are the staples of growing and developing into effective, happy human beings. Our sanitized, digitized, and “safe zone” approach to play is making our kids miserable. Turn them loose in the briar patch. A little blood, sweat, and tears early on can toughen kids against mild disruptions, helping them develop strong coping skills, which go a long way toward a happy life.
Special thanks to Sam Brandt, speaker, play aficionado, and head admin of Women of Nerf (WoN), for making me aware of the Decline of Play.
Also, to learn more about the role of failure in our culture of development and education check out my last article Is Your Professor Really Cruel? Understanding “Failure” in the Classroom.
 Or you could just read this study https://www.psychologytoday.com/files/attachments/1195/ajp-decline-play-published.pdf