Running Scared

It’s not just adults who are forgetting how to play. Overprotective parents, school officials, and government officials are gradually building a safety net that threatens to trap children in a worrisome tangle of mediated activity.

From highly structured ‘socialized’ recess in schools to the stultifying rules enforced on public beaches to the rise of commercial playgrounds nationwide, kids are finding ever fewer opportunities for spontaneous fun.

More than 40 percent of school districts across the country have dropped recess or are considering it, according to a recent report in U.S. News & World Report. Though the plan is hardly favored by kids, school officials have abandoned such ‘nonessential’ activities in an effort to boost academic achievement. As Sheila Flaxman writes in Instructor magazine, ‘[Some] believe that play takes valuable time away from more important activities and allows children to hide in a fantasy world instead of facing the realities of the here and now.’ In a nod to the need for physical exercise, school districts in Philadel-phia and elsewhere have established highly structured activities on the playground. These efforts ignore the need for independent play and time away from adult supervision.

Beyond the academic issues,

a sort of public paranoia about child safety is limiting what kids can do with their free time. Take the public beaches in Minneapolis, which bills itself as the City of Lakes. Children are not allowed to use inflatable toys or mattresses or snorkels or fins, or even throw a beach ball around. There are no rafts to swim to and jump from, and absolutely no horseplay.

‘Right now we have 11 city beaches that are totally safe, totally boring, and mostly empty,’ writes Lynnell Mickelsen in the community newspaper Southwest Journal.

Mickelsen found no precipitating tragedy that led to the boring beaches, just a slow and steady erosion in the city’s willingness to trust a kid’s ability to have harmless fun. The alternative? Truck the family out to the suburbs and shell out 20 bucks or more for an afternoon at a fancy kid-friendly water park.

Or give up swimming altogether and drive over to the nearby commercial playground, where for a few more bucks the kids can frolic away from the local toughs at the public playground. But, according to Generation Youth Issues, a Glasgow, Scotland, group that has studied the issue since 1996, that comforting sense of security comes at the expense of the

children. ‘The nature of play changes when play is formalized with a visit to a designated site,’ the study’s authors argue. ‘Play is no longer just a spontaneous everyday and everywhere event. [It becomes] a commodity that is purchased.’

And the price is even higher than we may realize. ‘Play is the best preparation for adulthood, especially in our highly technological, competitive society,’ writes Flaxman. ‘That’s because play, whether in the classroom, at recess, or outdoors, is all about discovering and practicing. It allows children to form an understanding of the social, emotional, moral, and intellectual concepts to which they are being introduced at every turn.’

For Mickelsen, the question is even simpler: ‘What price do we pay when we risk-manage our lives into something safe, flat, and empty?’

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