I’ve heard of urging kids to eat their peas and carrots.
I’ve heard of begging kids to brush their teeth.
I’ve heard of imploring kids to do their homework.
I’ve heard of pleading with kids to put on a coat, comb their hair, make their beds, pick up their clothes, clean their rooms, feed the dog and take out the garbage.
But I’ve never heard of anyone pleading with kids to play.
Until now. In case you haven’t noticed, there is a national campaign underway to encourage kids to — read it and weep — play.
This includes TV ads that employ pro football players to convey the message. One begins with a kid telling his classmates, “We make 60 minutes of play something to remember!” Then JJ Watts, the defensive star of the Houston Texans, announces, “We make 60 minutes of play our top priority.”
Cam Newton, the Carolina Panthers quarterback, stars in a similar ad. “I promise to exercise and eat right,” a kid tells Newton.
“Don’t forget 60 minutes of play a day, right?” Newton replies.
There are dozens of news reports and websites devoted to the subject. Participaction.com posted an article titled: “10 Ways to Help Your Kids Play More!” Some websites not only urge kids to play but provide written instructions on HOW TO PLAY. Kidshealth.org offers these helpful hints: “Try hopping on your bike, strapping on your skates, or grabbing your skateboard. Or try jumping rope and counting how many times you can jump before you miss. Jumping a rope is a great way to get aerobic exercise.”
Wait a minute, what is going on? What planet is this? Since when do you have to convince kids to play? They invented play. What are they going to tell them next, to eat more candy?
Call it another (bleak) sign of the times. Letsmove.gov explains the problem. “ Eight to 18-year-old adolescents spend an average of 7.5 hours a day using entertainment media, including TV, computers, video games, cell phones and movies, in a typical day, and only one-third of high school students get the recommended levels of physical activity.” The other problem: Parents overschedule their kids with structured activities and structured play, if there can be such a thing.
So kids are sedentary, fat and unhealthy and at the current rate our species will evolve into a giant pair of thumbs and outsized eyes, with shriveled arms and legs. The alarm has been sounded. “Make 2014 the Year Your Kids Play” (CNN). “The Serious Need for Play” (Scientific American). “The Kids Don’t Play Anymore” (Globe and Mail). “Less Play Time = More Troubled Kids” (U.S. News).
Try this: The next time you drive through a neighborhood, count how many kids are outside playing. There was a time when driveways, yards, parks and any empty lots were filled with kids having fun. Not anymore.
Twenty years ago, no one had to remind kids to play; it wasn’t as if they were going to forget. Kids forgot to do homework or chores, but they didn’t forget to play. Parents didn't have to tell them to start playing; they had to tell them to stop. Otherwise, they would’ve played right through dinner and bedtime.
Kids played every waking minute they weren’t in a classroom, and their favorite subject was recess. They didn’t call it aerobic exercise or even exercise; they called it fun. If exercise was an unintended benefit, fine, whatever. They played pickup games anywhere there was a yard, park, empty lot, driveway, or street. They roamed fields and explored woods and swam in creeks and fished ponds and made forts and played tag and hide and seek and dodgeball.
They didn’t need anyone to tell them what bikes or skateboards were for, either. Not that such toys were always necessary. They played with whatever was available — cans, pillows, rocks, sticks, little brothers, dogs, dirt, trees, hoses.
Nowadays, getting a kid to play is like getting him to practice the piano or clean the garage. Playing is a tough job, kids, but someone’s got to do it. Now they’re trying to squeeze a little play into their schedules between texting and Xboxing and iPadding and cell phoning and dancing/music/pitching lessons. If the movie “Sandlot” were made today, the kids would have personal coaches for hitting, pitching and weightlifting.
Peter Gray, a psychologist at Boston College, wrote a powerful essay in Aeon Magazine on the subject. He believes adults have been “chipping away” at children's' free play for 50 years “by increasing the time that children had to spend at schoolwork and, even more significantly, by reducing children’s freedom to play on their own, even when they were out of school and not doing homework. Adult-directed sports for children began to replace ‘pickup’ games; adult-directed classes out of school began to replace hobbies; and parents’ fears led them, ever more, to forbid children from going out to play with other kids, away from home, unsupervised.” Gray believes the loss of free play impairs children intellectually and socially.
It's a strange state of affairs when kids have to be told to play. Maybe they don’t even know how to do it anymore.
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org