The Atlantic’s Christina Schwarz writes a spirited defense of letting children off the lease based on Howard Chudacoff’s Children at Play.
Can it be true that children no longer know how to play? Chudacoff argues otherwise. Although adults have perennially felt compelled to protect children and guide their play—encouraging board games, for instance, in the 1800s—to play is, intrinsically, to not do exactly what the grown-ups say. A 1981 U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission study of playground use scolded that children were “walking up and down a slide, climbing onto any aspect of playground apparatus that allowed a grip or foothold, and roughhousing.” That’s play. Children have always taken risks and will continue to do so (which is why some experts argue that restricting them in every way imaginable only pushes them to go farther to find hazards that adults have not yet anticipated); children will always play with objects not intended to be toys; children will always use toys in ways the manufacturers—or the parents—do not recommend. They are driven to experiment and create; that is what developing human beings do.
Why make it so hard for them? We seem to have returned to the 18th-century notion that play for its own sake is a waste of time, that children can be allowed to pursue their natural inclinations only if those can be channeled into activities that will prepare them to be orderly and productive (and now, God help us, “creative”) adults—even today’s play movement stresses the uplifting “educational value” of play. But childhood is not just preparation for “real life,” it’s a good portion of life itself. If the golden years of childhood are from age 3 to 12, they encompass more than twice the time people spend in what is generally regarded as a focal point of life: the college years. As Smith’s memoir demonstrates, childhood—those first, fresh experiences of the world, unclouded by reason and practicality, when you are the center of existence and anything might happen—should be regarded less as a springboard to striving adulthood than as a well of rich individual perception and experience to which you can return for sustenance throughout life, whether you rise in the world or not. Children have a knack for simply living that adults can never regain. If they’re allowed to exercise it a bit, perhaps they’ll have childhoods, like Smith’s, worth remembering.