As the father of a toddler, this book review in the New York Times really hit home:
For children, play is easy. You can do it anytime, anywhere, with anyone, and it’s fun. For adults, play is hard. They want to know if it’s safe for their kids, if it’s educational, if it promotes motor coordination, if it’s environmentally friendly, if it will look good on a preschool application.
The tension between how children spend their free time and how adults want them to spend it runs through Howard P. Chudacoff’s new book, “Children at Play: An American History” (New York University Press), like a yellow line smack down the middle of a highway.
“Kids should have their own world, and parents are nuisances,” said Mr. Chudacoff, a professor of history at Brown University.
His critique is increasingly echoed today by parents, educators and children’s advocates who warn that organized activities, overscheduling and excessive amounts of homework are crowding out free time and constricting children’s imaginations and social skills.
“It seems like a really timely book,” said Cindy Dell Clark, a historian at Penn State Delaware County and a consultant to the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia. “We’ve taken a lot of privacy and autonomy out of a child’s day.”
. . .
[W]hile commercial toys have almost completely colonized children’s free time, for most of history, play primarily meant roaming around the countryside or improvising with objects found or made at home.
Mr. Chudacoff led the way to a small, old-fashioned Providence toy store, Creatoyvity, which carries hardly any toys licensed from television and movies. Mr. Chudacoff looked over the figures of knights and kings, gorillas, giraffes, cows, monkeys, rhinos, chickens and dinosaurs, as well as the beads, blocks, paint, glitter, trucks, cranes, tractors and wooden toys imported from Germany.
“It’s a toy store rather than an entertainment center,” Mr. Chudacoff said, explaining that with so much commercial licensing, toys have become more of an offshoot of the television and film industries than elements of play.
One result is that a toy comes with a prepackaged back story and ready-made fantasy life, he said, meaning that “some of the freedom is lost, and unstructured play is limited.”
Video games put more of a straitjacket on imagination, he complains. And online versions of traditional games like Monopoly don’t permit players to make up their own rules (like winning money when you land on Free Parking), to harvest the fake money and dice for an altogether different game or even to cheat.
Read it all here.