My rabbi growing up once gave a sermon in which he said that he and a colleague, in a sort of rabbinical competition, would “compete” to see who could come up with the best sermon based on road signs. I have been thinking a lot about that lately as I drive past signs that say “Slow Children at Play.”
It is a command for drivers to take note and slow down. But it might also be a reminder to parents and teachers as well. Slow down- our children are at play. Or at least they should be. Sadly, what strikes me when I see the signs is the absolute absence of children playing.
In the afternoons neighborhoods that once echoed with the boisterous cries of children are now eerily silent. Children are at activities- from soccer, to dance, to football, to violin, to math Olympics, to tutoring in foreign languages. Our children are so busy being prepared to be talented adults (or excellent college applicants) that they are seldom allowed to be children.
And it’s funny- because I know a lot of unhappy adults who look back nostalgically on their own childhoods when they were carefree. But our children are not carefree. They are stressed and over-scheduled. They are tested and quantified. They are seldom at play.
Perhaps it is a result of our collective anxiety. The job market is tight and the world seems ever more competitive. We are anxious about our own futures, and are thus also anxious about our children’s. We want to give them that edge that we lack (maybe if we had been fluent in Chinese we would have gotten that promotion). Or maybe we are so miserable ourselves that we can’t stand seeing children happy. Maybe their carefree laughter is painful to us because we don’t make time for it in our own lives.
But play and downtime are necessary for children- especially as the common core pushes literature, and the arts, and recess out of our kids’ school day. Ironically play is also essential for global competition. Unstructured play gives children the opportunity to make (and break) their own rules which in turn fosters creativity and that ever sought after “outside the box” thinking.
Play helps children develop independence and self-reliance because children at play are entertaining themselves and do not need adult supervision (or help) to do it. Play encourages problem solving and develops a sense of internal locus of control- a measure of your belief in your own ability to control events in your life which psychologists find relates to happiness, well-being and lower levels of depression and anxiety.
We are moving so fast that our children never get to slow down- to be children at play. The result is that they lose the capacity to play. They become the zombies that haunt our popular culture– drones in the world- marching aimlessly and endlessly towards some elusive (and destructive) goal.
There are many reasons we do not allow our children to play as they used to; Dual career families (by choice and by necessity) seek out structured activities to keep them occupied during work hours, a culture of fear that makes us believe our neighborhoods are under siege (when in fact crime has been falling for the past 20 years), and a particularly corrosive culture of competition that permeates affluent communities. We may not even notice how little our children are playing, because we ourselves work so hard and play so little.
But children are the canaries in the coal mine. Rising rates of teen suicide and suicide attempts as well as high rates of childhood/teen depression and drug addiction should warn us that what we are doing is not good for them, and indeed, it is not good for us (adults have seen similar rises in suicide and drug use).