Tuesday, August 7, 2018

What Happened to Summer Vacation?

It is a Tuesday morning. There are only a few short weeks of summer left before school starts. The weather is perfectly sunny today, although admittedly warm and humid. However, the neighborhood is eerily quiet.

I know there are children here. Sometimes I see them, although I only catch glimpses. I see the child across the street as he ambles from his mother's car to the front door every weekday evening. I see the window decals on my neighbors' minivans for the local school. Sometimes, during the school year, I might see a few of them waiting for the school bus to arrive. I know they are here, although I rarely see them, and when I do it is only short flashes of their presence.

This neighborhood silence frightens me. It's too quiet. As the long days of summer have been drifting by, I haven't seen the first gaggle of youngsters ride by on bicycles. I haven't seen them running past the house. I haven't heard the patter of sneakers on the sidewalk. I haven't caught sight of even a single child in the neighborhood park or roaming free in any public spaces.

They are here, but only behind closed doors.

It really isn't the silence that bothers me. It is knowing these neighborhood children are contained in structured, adult-led, indoor activities, constantly told what to do, how to act... what to think. Structured activities, while terribly convenient for busy working parents, are essentially the bane of childhood.

Overly nostalgic adults like me laud our own childhoods. Our pant suit-clad, stay-at-home mothers sent us outside so they could mop floors and watch their stories in peace. They didn't want to to see us until dinner time. My mother even told me once to "go play in traffic." With nothing better to do, we made friends, played games, and created our own adventures.

Gone are those days of barefoot abandon. There isn't the time nor the freedom for neighborhood play and backyard forts. Today, nearly every waking hour of the typical child's day is orchestrated by someone else.

Summers, evenings, and weekends, times that used to be sacred space for childhood play, have morphed into time for structured activities. Too often, when we actually witness kids playing in a park, they are garbed in matching uniforms and being instructed by adult coaches or counselors. They follow instructions, wait in orderly lines, and only play games with clear rules imposed by grown-ups.

There is little free time to explore the environment, to play with sticks, squish in mud, or lay in the grass and daydream. Today's children are exiled from nature, caged and cutoff from the natural world. Not only are they not allowed to play with the unfettered freedom of previous generations, they are also segregated from the "real world." The only social interactions they experience are with children their own age, the ones also caged in the same confining structure of modern American childhood, and even those interactions are limited to the rules and restrictions of the adult-imposed environment.

The landscape of childhood has changed drastically in just a few short decades. Today's children probably wouldn't know what to do if they weren't given clear directions (although I suspect it wouldn't take them long to figure things out). But the strict rules and ordered schedules modern children endure, would have drive me absolutely crazy as a child.

But maybe it is doing that to today's children as well.

Perhaps the carefully arranged schedules children are forced to keep are, in fact, driving them literally insane, or at the very least having a severe affect on their mental health.

Dr. Peter Gray, research professor of psychology at Boston College and author of Free to Learn, asserts a causal link between the decline in childhood play and the marked increase in childhood psychopathy, including depression, anxiety, narcissism, and suicide. He had this to say in his 2011 article published in the American Journal of Play:

Play functions as the major mean by which children (1) develop intrinsic interests and competencies; (2) learn howto make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control, and follow rules; (3) learn to regulate their emotions; (4) make friends and learn to get along with others as equals; and (5) experience joy. 

Over the last century, Western Society has made amazing, almost miraculous advancements in medicine and technology. Quality of life has improved tremendously for large portions of the world's population. Our country has also made amazing progress in destroying old prejudices of race, sexual orientation, and gender. Today, life is undeniably easier than it was for even our recent ancestors.

However, if we measure progress based on happiness and mental health, we have actually been moving steadily backwards since the 1950s. Here are just a few examples:

  • Today, approximately 2.6 million American children have diagnosed anxiety and/or depression.
  • There are currently millions of U.S. kids on prescription medication for behavioral issues and depression.
  • According to a study published this May in Pediatrics, the number of kids hospitalized for thinking about or attempting suicide has more than doubled in less than 10 years. 

Anxiety and depression often correspond to the feeling that an individual lacks control of their own lives. People who believe they have power to change their circumstances and control their own fate are less likely to experience anxiety and depression.

Children, especially those whose lives are an endless string of school, organized sports, and other planned activities, can easily feel like victims of circumstances beyond their control. These kids are  constantly being told where to go and what to do, when to eat and when to use the bathroom, when to sit and when to run. Even when they are allowed to run, they are told how far and how fast to do it. Even kids choose their own activities, they may still feel little control over how their time is spent since outside authorities are still decide how they will spend each individual minute in those activities.

Modern children have very little time for free play.

This is a serious issue.

Play deprivation can have far-reaching affects. Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist and author of the book, Balanced and Barefoot, describes the importance of childhood play and its impact on physical and emotional development.

“We are keeping [children] from attaining the very sensory input they need in order to grow into resilient and able-bodied people. They need to climb, jump, run through the woods, pick up sticks, jump in mud puddles, and fall and get hurt on occasion. These are all natural and necessary experiences that will help develop a healthy sensory system–foundational to learning and accomplishing many of life’s goals.”
Behind closed doors, in single file lines, herded from one organized activity to another, children are not given the freedom they need to develop and reach their full potential. Even when the activities are designed to give them a jump start on educational success, it may actually hinder that success. Many of the qualities that contribute to success in the adult world - like problem solving, creativity, cooperation, compromise, and a willingness to take calculated risks - are all developed on the playground, not the classroom or the sports field.

There are plenty of reasons for the lack of childhood activity in the typical American neighborhood. Working mothers, television and video games, academic pressure, fear of dangerous predators, and being reported to Child Protective Services are all factors keeping modern kids in carefully controlled and supervised environments.

It really doesn't matter why. The result is the same regardless of the reason - anxious, stressed-out kids who will grow up and struggle to find balance, motivation, and happiness. If they are never given the freedom to be well-adjusted children, they will never develop the skills necessary to be well-adjusted adults.

Children need the opportunity to grow outside of fences. They need to run too fast and be too loud. They need to scrape knees, play in the mud. They need to find their own cure for boredom and make up rules to their own games.

And that is why the neighborhood silence frightens me. I worry I won't get the chance to be the grumpy old woman who yells at the neighborhood kids to stop trampling her grass. I worry about what kinds of adults the neighborhood children I rarely see will become.

Is the world ready for what we're raising behind closed doors?

More importantly... will they be ready for the world?

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