Over at her blog, Ann Althouse shows a picture of a toy-strewn yard in her hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, and asks, “where are the children?” She cannot fathom why kids never seem to be playing in the yards, or holding softball games, or riding bikes in the streets as she goes for her daily walks.
First, as an urbanite who entertains frequent fantasies of the joys of suburban life with children, in which I could just tell them to go out and play and know that they would be getting fresh air and exercise, shooting hoops or jumping rope without having to go to a park or on an excursion, I find this dismaying.
But I think we know the answers: Mostly the children are off at scheduled, organized activities for which their parents pay good money to replicate what used to occur spontaneously. They are there because their mothers (and fathers) work. Playing in the street, or on the front lawn only works when mom is inside, knitting, making dinner, or writing a book near a window. The kids whose mothers don’t work are at scheduled activities because that’s where all the other kids are. Even the home-schooled kids have to go to organized soccer because they need some contact with other kids, and …that’s where everyone is. This is especially true in the summer.
Also, organized activities, such as soccer, involve instruction and learning skills. A spontaneous game of soccer is just playing. No time for that if you want to go to a good school.
Once they hit a certain age it is very hard to pry their little fingers off the electronic device of the moment. Real games pale in comparison to playing them on the Wii. And, contrary to my own distant childhood during which there were only a few hours of children’s TV programming a day, there is kid TV 24/7. Indoors is much more interesting than ever before. And, the corollary is that it takes more effort to interest kids in playing outside.
As Mark Steyn, and now the New York Times Magazine tell us, these kids don’t have enough sibs to get up a game of anything much at home. Moreover, people reproduce at lower levels in blue states, and Madison is very blue.
And then there is the least attractive possibility, but the one I thought of immediately on reading the question: In 1995, when Norma McCorvey publicly announced her new pro-life views, she was asked what had changed her mind. McCorvey, aka Jane Roe — of Roe vs. Wade fame – told a story about walking past a playground in her Texas town, and seeing that it was empty. For some reason this hit her hard. As the questions “where are the children?” and “why aren’t there any children playing here?” swirled around in her mind, she became very emotional and broke down in tears. The absent children, she felt, were a result of her work. Next thing you know she had become a member in good standing of Right to Life. I recall hearing this story on NPR at the time, weeks after having my first child, and tearing up myself. Though here in Manhattan I have to say that the parks are full, and the streets are jammed with strollers.