PLAYTIME. I came across a most timely article in the NYTimes. Hilary Stout describes the plight of American children as follows: "For several years, studies and statistics have been mounting that suggest that the culture of play in the U.S. is vanishing. Children spend far too much time in front of a screen, educators and parents lament -- 7 hours 38 minutes a day on average .... and only one in five children live within walking distance (a half-mile) of a park or playground, making them even less inclined to frolic outdoors.
"Behind the numbers is adult behavior as well as children's. Parents furiously tapping away on their Blackberries in the living room, too stressed by work demands to tolerate noise games in the background. Weekends consumed by soccer, lacrosse and other sports leagues, all directed and organized by parents. The full slate of lessons (chess, tae kwon do, Chinese, you name it) and homework beginning in the earliest games. Add to that parental safety concerns that hinder even true believers like Sarah Wilson.
"'People are scared to let their kids outside, even where I live," she said. 'If I want my kids to go outside, I have to be with them.'
".... The scientists, psychologists, educators and others who are part of the play movement say that most of the social and intellectual skills one needs to succeed in life and work are first developed through childhood play. Children learn to control their impulses through games, and they learn to solve problems, negotiate, think creatively and work together as a team when they dig together in a sandbox or build a fort with sofa cushions. (The experts define play as a game or activity initiated and directed by children. So video games don't count .... )
"Much of the movement has focused on the educational value of play, and on efforts to restore recess and unstructured playtime to early childhood and elementary school curriculums. But advocates are now starting to reach out to parents, recognizing that for the movement to succeed, parental attitudess have to evolve as well -- starting with a willingness to tolerate a little more unpredictability in children's schedules and a little less structure at home.
"'I think more than anything, adults are a little fearful of children's play,' said Joan Almon, executive director of the Alliance for Childhood, a nonprofit pro-play group. 'Some people have a greater tolerance for chaos and have developed a hand for gently bringing it back into order. Others are really nervous about it.'"
Several thoughts occur to me. One, the hyper-structuring of our children's lives is more likely to be an urban/suburban than a rural phenomenon, and also more likely to occur in middle-to-upper class homes than in poorer homes. To the extent that may be true (and I'm only going on intuition, with no studies to back me), children's play has not been entirely lost. It has, however, been diluted by our obsession with electronic games, cell phones and texting. I can only contrast this reality with my own childhood, growing up on farms and in small farming communities in northern Montana in the 1950s and 1960s. My playtime was either alone or with small groups of playmates, and our imaginations were our inspiration. I feel richer for that experience, just as I feel richer for having spent my early years listening to radio rather than under the spell of television. A child's imagination, stimulated but never stifled by parents, is a gift to be treasured and nurtured.
Further, I would be saddened to see the play-vs.-structure pendulum swing too far in the other direction. I believe that there is a place for both forms of a child's engagement with the world. Unstructured play is absolutely essential for humans, as it is for most animal life. And access to learning experiences like languages, athletics and the arts are equally valid. Each child and each set of parents will find their own appropriate balance, so long as the resources are available to all. It is the "to all" part that can be tricky, since our society is far, far from being equal in the opportunites it affords to all.
For now, my thought is -- "More play? Absolutely!"
TRAVEL TIPS. Here's a great resource for those who may be traveling for work or pleasure -- 11 Tricks to Cutting Travel Costs in 2011. Check it out, and see whether it might not be useful for your own plans, in 2011 and beyond. Cheers.