Democracy and Free Play

With the onset of the school year, the good news for children is the renewed interest in, and awareness of, the importance of play. A major contribution is the report issued by The American Academy of Pediatrics on “The Power of Play”, suggesting a pediatric role in enhancing development in young children. The report describes the way in which play helps children meet their developmental milestones in various areas.

Taking the advocacy of play even further is a new book by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, “THE CODDLING OF THE AMERICAN MIND: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.” The focus for these authors is on “free play,” defined as activity that is directed by the participants, freely chosen, undertaken for its own sake, and not pursued to achieve ends distinct from the activity itself. Team sports under a coach is not free play unlike kids joining with friends to start a game on their own, which is.

The authors point to the decline in any kind of play in the last few decades as play has shifted indoors and often involves the computer and no other children. At the same time recess and free play in schools were reduced to make room for more standardized testing and academic work. Even the youngest schoolchildren have homework and after-school playtime has turned into structured activities overseen by adults. At the same time, children have become ever more supervised as a fear of “stranger danger” means parents who allow unsupervised outdoor play are criticized as bad parents.

These authors, while making the connection between free play and the important skills developed in childhood, also reach for the larger goal of connecting such play to a well-functioning democracy. They quote Alexis de Tocqueville who touring America concluded that one secret of our success was our ability to solve problems collectively and cooperatively, calling it the “art of association”, crucial he believed for a self-governing people.

It is particularly in this regard that the importance of childhood free play is noted. When children play together on their own, the absence of adults forces them to practice their social skills. The children on their own must enforce the rules or vary them and resolve disputes that arise. The absence of an adult also leaves room for children to take some risks rather than assuming an adult will always be there to set safety limits.

The authors speculate about the effects on children deprived of opportunities for free play, risk-taking and self-governance. They suggest that as adults such children are likely to be less resilient, making a comparison to the immune system, which requires repeated exposure to dirt and germs in order to develop its protective abilities. They also suggest that if we protect kids from the small risks and harms of play, we stunt their ability to handle challenges and recover from failures.

Another consequence of play deprivation the authors predict is a reduction in conflict management and negotiation skills. If there is always an adult who takes over, instead of learning to resolve conflicts quickly and privately, kids who learn to tell the adult are rewarded for reporting to adults that they have been mistreated.

The point these authors make is that the very skills that are needed for self-governance in a democracy are those that are developed in childhood through free play. A familiarity with early childhood programs makes clear that it is just those opportunities for experience in conflict management and negotiation that is absent in structured groups led by adults.

These authors make a persuasive case for the importance of free play. It is now left to us as parents and educators to determine how to provide it for our children.