More Play

by Abby Wisse Schachter

How often do you read an article and then have the author’s assertions prove to be correct the very next day? “Rarely, if ever,” would have been my answer before I saw evolutionary psychologist Peter Gray’s piece “The Play Deficit.”

Gray explains that kids today are having a hard time successfully growing into adulthood because they are overprotected, over-pressured, and are not given enough time for free play. It is a grim assessment that caused me — the mother of four young children — a lot of anxiety. But the very next day after reading the article I found that something Gray described actually happened among my kids. It was a revelation.

Gray writes about the nature and virtues of play among children of different ages:

The reason why play is such a powerful way to impart social skills is that it is voluntary. Players are always free to quit, and if they are unhappy they will quit. Every player knows that, and so the goal, for every player who wants to keep the game going, is to satisfy his or her own needs and desires while also satisfying those of the other players, so they don’t quit….

[W]atch an age-mixed group of children playing a ‘pickup’ game of baseball… directed by the players themselves. … They have to co-operate not just with the players on their team, but also with those on the other team, and they have to be sensitive to the needs and abilities of all the players. Big Billy might be the best pitcher, but if others want a turn at pitching he’d better let them have it, so they don’t quit. And when he pitches to tiny Timmy, who is just learning the game, he’d better toss the ball gently, right toward Timmy’s bat, or even his own teammates will call him mean. When he pitches to walloping Wally, however, he’d better throw his best stuff, because Wally would feel insulted by anything less. In the pickup game, keeping the game going and fun for everyone is far more important than winning. 

On a walk with my own children a day later, I saw exactly what Gray means about keeping the game going. My five-year-old and three-year-old were racing each other down the sidewalk with the kindergartener smoking the toddler. Losing made the toddler give up racing and start crying that she didn’t want to play anymore. The five-year-old’s response was to do whatever she had to to keep her little sister playing. She faked an injury, grasping her knee and fake crying that she was hurt and couldn’t run anymore. (Her eye-roll let me, and her older sister, know that she was acting.) The three-year-old jumped at the opportunity and shot forward. When the little one had just passed her older sister, my “injured” daughter made a miraculous recovery and started chasing her younger sister down the block, catching up, and overtaking her almost immediately. This caused the little one to give up again and the whole game of racing, stopping, injury, recovery, and racing was replayed over and over again.

Gray’s analysis about the importance of mixed-aged play came to life before my eyes. Perhaps we don’t have to rush our children into adult-organized, age-segregated after-school activities. His larger point about the need to break down traditional school structures and to stop focusing on test scores also deserves attention, especially when he correctly points out the holes in the current dogma – Gray is talking to you, President Obama — about how Chinese and other Asian students do so much better than American kids on standardized tests. Did you know that those societies are suffering from the limitations of their supposed success?

— Abby W. Schachter authors the blog, about the intersection of parenting and government policy.

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