Photos By Mike Lanza
The sun is at its peak as Nico, 11, bolts out the door into his neighborhood, yelling to his mom, "I'm going to the park! What time should I be home?" "Five-thirty!" she calls back. He climbs on his bike and zooms down the street to meet up with Sean and Sam, both 11, to kick a soccer ball around.
Their game morphs into tag, which turns into a gallop across the bleachers at the field, which ends with a trip to the grocery store down the street for a snack to share. As the sun begins to set, Nico reluctantly returns home, red-faced and panting, with stories about his latest escapade in the park, new jokes he and his friends concocted and a minor protest against how early his family eats dinner.
Today, parents fear stranger danger. But they also fear their children will grow up incompetent. As good old-fashioned playtime is replaced with screen time, structured programs and excessive homework, children are increasingly losing out on important life skills developed by play in a strong community.
Mollie Kaye hopes to give these skills to her son Nico. Though he may return home with dirt on his cheeks and perhaps a scrape or two on the knee, though the science project may be put on hold for a day and some safety risks must be factored in, she continually works to provide him with rich growing-up experiences similar to her unfenced but community-oriented 1970s upbringing in central Ohio.
"We took it for granted when we were kids," Kaye said. "We didn't know that running around in the woods, beside the creek, there was something very important that could happen within us. But there was."
What's at play?
Children don't play outside on the streets like they used to. A recent study conducted by Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine found that 44 percent of mothers and 24 percent of fathers take their children outside to play at least once per day. Only 51 percent of children reportedly play outside at least once a day with either parent, and the statistics are worse for girls.
Research has shown that play is an evolutionary given for young children in more than one way.
"It turns out that free play — plain old unsupervised, run around, come up with your own game, come up with your own team, figure out yourself if the ball was in or out — is a super vitamin that nature assumed every child would be ingesting and, until very modern times, they were," said Lenore Skenazy, author of "Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry."
"Mother Nature has all animals playing. Ravens fly to the top of snowy hills and slide down on their backs, and hippopotami do flips in the water just for fun, and gazelles will go out and play basically the equivalent of tag out in the wild."
This kind of play, Skenazy said, is necessary to building, enhancing and developing the skills needed to survive to adulthood and breed again. And it's the same with kids.
To be deprived of this kind of play has long-term ramifications. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, professor of psychology at Temple University, terms the recently declining numbers of children who play as "the next global warming."
"What does the workforce tell us? We need kids to get along, we need kids who are better communicators, we need kids who know more than just reading and math, we need kids who are confident, we need kids who are critical thinkers," Hirsh-Pasek said.
"If we take play away from young children and fill all their time with directives, then 20 years from now, we're going to see exactly the crisis that we're starting to see today, which is a workforce woefully unprepared to operate in the global marketplace." Hirsh-Pasek suggested those very skills start in the sandbox and move to the boardroom.
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