So the Tree Said: The Lost Art of Play

Near the top of our yard sits a mature, white dogwood tree.  Over the past year, it slowly has become the proverbial water cooler for our young children.  Many days they ask if they can climb and play in its branches.  As they do, the conversations become quite varied, and embellished as young children often do.

This past Sunday, I was treated to one of these many “meetings” in the tree as I worked in a landscape bed nearby.  As they hung off its branches, the discussion went from bugs to trees to the past weekend’s events and on and on.  As I listened, I became nostalgic for the carefree days of my youth spent in the woods building forts and finding salamanders under rocks.  It also began to make me think of a time when play for all children seemed much simpler.

Developmental specialists have long known that play serves a critical function for kids.  At a very young age, children learn initially from “paralleling” the activities of those around them.  They gradually move into more cooperative play with peers, which eventually shifts into the art of pretend and make-believe.  Researchers call this sociodramatic play – imaginative play in which two or more children enact different roles.  This allows them to learn and practice the social norms they will eventually be expected to follow.  It also helps them better understand people and the world around them.  This play gives way to more of the rule-bound play of games and organized sports that we see in middle childhood, although some researchers believe that pretend doesn’t ever really disappear, but goes “underground”.  Children who do not go through these natural stages, such as those diagnosed with autism or in very neglectful situations, struggle to develop ways to relate to others and think about things in a very holistic way.  As adults, we tend to see play as leisure.  But this is one of the ways by which kids learn, and develop the curiosity that will be needed to motivate them later on.

Over the past few decades, the nature of play has transformed for many of our children.  This is especially true for those of a young age.  For many reasons, play has become more structured, directed, and defined even at the toddler age.  It is not something our children have asked for.  It has come largely as the result of changes in technology and parenting roles.  Video games, internet, and other technology have increased its sedentary nature.  “Fun factories” or “gaming outlets” have come full throttle into the market, offering “supervised, safe opportunities” for leisure.  Media coverage regarding kidnappings, crimes against children, and unintentional accidents has increased.  More children are being confined to supervised surroundings.  Families are having fewer children, and parents are working more.  This has led to a greater likelihood that playtime will also be parent bonding time.  Year-round structured sports teams even for the youngest of children have increased dramatically.  This is different from the days in which summer t-ball was the only option (with a few brief exceptions) for your average kindergartener.  These are just a few possible contributors to the changes in today’s play.

Whatever the reason, though, one thing is obvious.  We, as parents of this generation, are immersing ourselves in our children’s play more than ever before.  All is not bad on this front.  This can be a great opportunity to bond with our kids.  But is there a point when we need to disconnect?  A few years ago, Dr. Madeline Levine, a clinical psychologist, wrote a book entitled The Price of Privilege.  In it, she detailed a number of psychological concerns, including depression and anxiety, which were increasingly being seen in our privileged youth.  One of the areas which she felt contributed to these issues was the adult tendency to insert themselves frequently into their children’s play.  In their attempts to provide fun opportunities for their kids, something else unknowingly occurred.  Adults placed their own values into the spontaneous art of play.  Themes of competition, structure, intentionality, and organization seemed to show up increasingly.  In the process, conflict increased. Children became overly focused on comparison (to each other), not curiosity.  It was her sense based on research and personal experience that the changes in the nature of play had created a sense that children had to live up to someone else’s standard, not the unique one of their own created from the earliest years of exploration.

If good play does anything, it should encourage curiosity.  Curiosity leads to motivation.  Motivation hopefully leads us to eventually seek out a career that is rewarding and interesting.  Obviously, this is overly simplified.  But if comparison becomes more important than curiosity for a kindergartner, the consequences can be detrimental.  Think of it this way.  If your young child becomes overly focused on the values of a competitive culture, then he or she is being set up for a lot of anxious, disappointing moments.  Many people will say that children might as well learn the lessons of our society.  But, that is like saying that we should learn that owning a home can be a huge stress before learning that “home is where the heart is.”   Children must adopt the values of curiosity, industriousness, joy, and creativity before they can ever embrace the challenges of a grown-up society.

There also appears to be another price to the changes.  Many parents will bemoan the fact that life seems too busy and finances continue to be strained.  Recently, a father of four young children expressed another concern.  Simple family time seemed most at risk in their busy schedule.  He acknowledged that although he was happy to see his 4-year-old have the opportunity to play soccer, the 10-game schedule and multiple practices a week seemed unreasonable given developmental expectations for a child this age.  Meanwhile, his kid seemed to lose interest after a few games, but they were left to finish out the season as planned.  He acknowledged that the values he really wanted to pass along at this age (i.e., being active, enthusiasm for play, cooperation) he could have just as easily taught in his own backyard.

Which brings us back to the way our children play.  There was a day when children really did play pick-up games in a sandlot with ragged bats and balls improvised from all sorts of things.  Along with that came an oral tradition and social exploration handed down in a manner as spontaneous as the games themselves.  Ask most kids today what a sandlot is.  They will look as confused as if you handed them a broom and a tennis ball, and told them to go play baseball.

It is not that all generational trends regarding play should be perceived as limiting or negative.  Many have improved safety, such as the use of bike helmets with all ages.  Some have increased opportunities in other areas like access to culture and knowledge not found in the backyard. It can also allow us to bond more with our kids, if done in moderation. But, the insertion of adulthood into child’s play is concerning.  This is largely because signs suggest that the rates of boredom, frustration, and anxiety just keep going up.  Years ago, I was watching the news when a segment caught my attention about how a group of teachers were teaching typical kids how to play basketball (in the gym) by first “shooting baskets” on the Wii in front of real basketball goals.  I sat there somewhat stunned.  I appreciated the instructors attempt to get them interested in an active sport.  But I was admittedly horrified that structured video games were being used as an entry point for “shooting hoops”.

Play in the most traditional sense does still exist today.  But, in some ways, it is kind of like the small businesses who are struggling to compete with the larger corporations.  It seems to be losing out to something much bigger, and much easier to market. Many parents seem caught up in the “superstar” trend; at the least, they worry most that their children will be left behind. It all seems to be a lot of pressure for parents, whether regarding finances or expectations or just daily schedules.  Parenting is already challenging enough without it.  I am just not sure much of it is getting us closer to raising healthy, industrious children who will someday become the respected, conscientious adults that we strive to be.  A building body of research appears to be suggesting the same thing.  “Play” that routinely lands families in the drive thru window past bedtime seems to be neglecting the factors that we do know will lead to a better life.

I just wonder if I am the only one who longs for the days when the branches of trees can be an invitation to so much more.  When the wet rocks in the creek can hide remarkable wonders.  When the logs are just waiting to be arranged.  And when the imagination can really run wild once again.

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