This article is part of a package on creativity. For more, read " Why Essays Are So Damn Boring ," " Bright Ideas from Baltimore’s Citizens ," " The Creativity Conceit ," " Art + Science= Inspiration ," and " Putting the Arts Back into the Arts ."
Adult life begins in a child’s imagination,” said poet Dana Gioia, speaking before the graduating class of Stanford University in June 2007. “And we’ve relinquished that imagination to the marketplace.” By that, Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, meant that we’ve pawned off the task of imagination to commercial manufacturers of marketing and entertainment. They feed us an endless stream of stock imagery and flashy distractions—“content” that comes predigested and does little or nothing in the way of encouraging us to form our own mental images, ideas, or stories.
Gioia’s speech lamented a cultural impoverishment that he said was evident in a widespread lack of interest in the arts and artists, a situation that he blamed on the media’s preoccupation with entertainers and athletes. Indeed, some members of Stanford’s graduating class were rather unimpressed with the selection of Gioia as speaker: They didn’t think he was famous enough. Perhaps that’s because he doesn’t really show up on TV—or YouTube or MySpace or anywhere that might have given him some credibility or at least name recognition among the graduates. It’s hard for scientists, writers, painters, and thinkers to compete with the continual stream of spectacle produced by the likes of Britney Spears and David Beckham, in a market where young people spend 44.5 hours each week in front of computer, TV, and video-game screens.
Much has been discussed about whether all these hours of screen time have contributed to the explosion of ADD, aggression, autism, and obesity in children and teenagers. What I’d like to consider is what kids are not doing during those 44.5 hours of screen time (besides not reading Gioia’s poetry) and how it could haunt them in later life.
“We’re engaged in a huge experiment where we’ve fundamentally changed the experience of childhood,” says Ed Miller, senior staff member for the Maryland-based Alliance for Childhood. “We don’t know what the outcome is going to be. We’re robbing kids of their birthright: the access to free, unstructured play of their own making.”
Note that Miller—who has worked as a professor, policy analyst, and editor of the Harvard Education Letter—didn’t just say “Kids are not playing like they used to.” By “free and unstructured play,” he means activity that is unencumbered by adult direction and does not depend on manufactured items or rules imposed by someone other than the kids themselves. He is referring to the kind of play that is not dependent on meddling or praise or validation from well-meaning parents on the sidelines. In fact, free and unstructured play is so encompassing for children that the entire adult world evaporates; children lose themselves in their own world completely. Most anyone who’s ever jolted a child out of this state with a call for lunch or bedtime would attest that the child’s reaction is akin to being awakened from a dream.
This type of play, both potent and transporting, has all but disappeared from contemporary childhood, Miller observes. And cognitive scientists, who investigate the basic logic that allows children to learn so much about the world so quickly, are worried. Basic logic also “allows children to envision possible future worlds, very different from the worlds we inhabit now, and to bring those worlds into being,” says Alison Gopnik, an international leader in the field of children’s learning and author of The Scientist in the Crib (Harper Paperbacks, 2000). “This ability to imagine alternative possibilities and make them real—literally to change the world—is a deeply important part of our evolutionary inheritance.”
For many children, that inheritance has been jeopardized. Certainly, kids play. Playgrounds haven’t been abandoned; toys are not obsolete. Today’s kids, though, especially middle- and upper-income children, cram a lot of activities each week in between those 40-plus screen hours, from music lessons to soccer games to science club to supervised “play dates.”
Thirty-three years ago, Roger Hart, now a professor of environmental and developmental psychology at City University of New York, studied 86 children in a rural Vermont village. “I realized nobody had really studied the natural history of kids,” he says. “We know more about the ecology of baboons than the ecology of children.”
Hart’s findings, published in 1978 as part of his dissertation project, revealed that children’s experience of “place” in the 1970s involved time they spent alone, or with peers, exploring their outdoor environment.
Recently, Hart initiated a new series of observations in the same rural village and found stark differences from his original data. “Thirty-three years ago, a 9-year-old boy could run anywhere he wanted. Now, that freedom is withheld until at least adolescence. And even then, the kid has to tell the parent where he’s going. Today, most children in town don’t ever play outside alone,” he says. “[It’s] interesting to ask what it means when children spend less time with other children, or when they no longer direct their own play. They rely on adult direction or the implicit direction in manufactured activity. You tell the kid to go out and play, and the kid says, ‘Play what?’ ”
In Where Do the Children Play?, a public television documentary that premiered earlier this year, pediatrician Kenneth Ginsburg says that through free, child-driven play, kids determine their own strengths and weaknesses; they also learn peer negotiation and become familiar with taking chances and forging ahead in the face of mistakes and failures—all traits that employers fear are waning in young new workers.
In a September 2007 report, “Under-Equipped and Unprepared: America’s Emerging Workforce and the Soft Skills Gap,” the youth-advocacy nonprofit America’s Promise Alliance declared that “a large percentage of the children and youth who will enter the workforce . . . are lacking enough of the ‘soft’ or applied skills—such as teamwork, decision making, and communication—that will help them become effective employees and managers.”
“If free play is essential for kids to become free agents with autonomy, who know they deserve a voice in public decision making, then we may be in serious trouble,” Ed Miller argues, pointing to “a new kind of tyranny where people are more and more willing to let authorities make decisions for them.” The public reaction—or lack thereof—to government wiretapping and surveillance is, he believes, an early warning sign of this increasing apathy and compliance. “People are willing to let the government spy on them because they can’t think of any other way to stay safe,” he says. “Fundamental issues of privacy and individual rights are really changing. Maybe that’s inevitable. But I hope not.”
America, Dana Gioia says, is dividing into two distinct behavioral groups: one that passively consumes electronic entertainment, and one that uses technology but also participates in the arts, sports, exercise—and volunteers at three times the rate of the other group. The factor that differentiates these groups is not based on income, geography, or education, but simply on whether people read for pleasure and participate in the arts. In his Stanford speech, Gioia argued that “a child who spends a month mastering Halo or NBA Live on Xbox has not been awakened and transformed the way that child would be spending the time rehearsing a play or learning to draw.”
A National Endowment for the Arts study published in 2004 correlated a decline in literary reading with increased participation in a variety of electronic media and noted that it “foreshadows an erosion in cultural and civic participation” because literary readers volunteer, do charity work, and attend arts and sports events more frequently than their non-reading peers. The report predicted that “at the current rate of loss, literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in half a century.”
Given what’s coming out of all these studies, it’s questionable whether tomorrow’s adults are learning to use the tools they’ll need to succeed. David Walsh, founder of the Minneapolis-based National Institute on Media and the Family, agrees that the changes raining down on our youngest generation are more enormous than those faced by any other. “Whenever revolutionary things happen in the world of technology, they have a big impact on society,” he says. “The printing press—that took us out of the Dark Ages into the Renaissance. It would be naive to think this latest profusion of technology wouldn’t have a dramatic impact on the way kids are being raised.”
Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, has recently focused his research efforts on the relationship between play and brain development in humans. “You put a subject into a CAT scan or MRI machine—which measure real-time blood flow into the brain—and you have that person looking at a virtual image, say a hand holding a ball, and then compare that to the person looking at an actual hand holding an actual ball.”
What goes on in the brain, Stuart says, is entirely different with each process: “The second one activates the frontal cortex and many other areas of the brain in a much more integrated way.” Virtual images stimulate the brain and stimulate imagination, he allows—but “it’s probably arousal without much integration with the whole of the brain.”
Brown’s point touches on a crucial area: the differences between an adult’s nervous system and a child’s. Children’s rapidly forming brains are unalterably influenced by the nature of their experiences. These differences are at the heart of the recent ban on cold medicines for very young children proposed by safety experts at the Food and Drug Administration, which has recently gone back on its assumption that children’s bodies are simply smaller versions of adult ones. The same goes for the assumption that TV and computer screens affect a child’s brain in the same way they affect an adult’s (which is, in part, why the American Academy of Pediatrics urges keeping kids under 2 away from the TV).
Unlike adults, children do not choose their environments or experiences, or the cultural norms that literally determine the way their brains will develop. And so the developing imagination is at its most vulnerable in babies and toddlers, in grade-school children, in unfolding adolescents whose minds are malleable and open and at the mercy of whatever environment, whatever experiences we adults either provide or deny.
English historian Arnold J. Toynbee said that apathy can be overcome by enthusiasm, and that enthusiasm can be aroused by only two things: “first, an ideal, which takes the imagination by storm, and second, a definite intelligible plan for carrying that ideal into practice.” That kind of imagination is the cognitive fuel that put a man on the moon. The fate of the American imagination seems also to be governed by an old adage—one that is tricky for cognitive scientists and brain researchers to prove in context, even though it’s simple enough for any first-grader to grasp: If we don’t use it, we may lose it.
Jeannine Ouellette is a Minneapolis-based writer and teacher for the Waldorf Schools. Excerpted from the Rake (Nov. 2007), a Minneapolis publication that tells stories with personality. After six years in print, the Rake shifted online only in March 2008; www.rakemag.com.