The loss of spontaneous play from children’s lives is not quite complete – children may still be seen, from time to time, skipping rope, playing tag or climbing a tree without being programmed to do so by a parent, gym teacher or coach. But the situation is pretty dismal. A generation’s fear of child predators has taken the roaming out of childhood, and with it the sense of no-purpose-but-fun play.
There are plenty of sports leagues. An astonishing 75 per cent of Canadian children are in organized physical activities or sports. Some children swim, dive, ride a horse, play a musical instrument, study a language and hit a baseball from the time the school bell rings till the time their head hits the pillow. (And that’s just Monday.) It may be that the warnings from non-profit groups such as Active Healthy Kids Canada, which gave Canadian children an F for their levels of physical activity, are exaggerated. But the title of the group’s new report – Is Active Play Extinct? – raises an important question. What happened to play for play’s sake?
Predators happened. The mass media happened, making every predation seem like it happened on the next corner. One in two parents surveyed cited fear of child predators as the reason for restricting their children’s outdoor play, according to the report.
While it is ultimately up to parents how best to deal with the risks to their children, it is worth asking the question whether the pendulum has swung too far. As children withdrew from public spaces, those spaces became less safe – not more. And the withdrawal became habitual. Hence, children between grades 6 and 12 spend an average of seven hours 48 minutes on various screens each day. Horrifying, if true. And not without risks, whether from the health problems associated with a sedentary life, cyberbullying or even pedophiles reaching through their screens. But more than all that, how do we quantify the more subtle risk of losing spontaneous play from childhood? It is not a catastrophic risk – but it’s close.
There is more than a little truth in the authors’ conclusion: “Unfortunately, the structure and demands of modern Canadian life may be engineering active play out of our children’s lives.”
More organized sports are not the answer. They are not a happy experience for every child, and besides, adults have organized childhood nearly out of existence. At this point, there is only the question – what happened to play, and how can it be restored?