The Shift from Unstructured Childhood Play to Organized Activity
I had an interesting discussion with some neighbors yesterday about why children don’t play in their streets and neighborhoods as much as they did when I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s. When I was a boy, we were basically told to go outside and play, lest we make ourselves busy in the house and do some chores to help mom out. A young boy didn’t need much more motivation to run outside the front door looking for adventure. Who wants to be inside on a nice, sunny day cleaning windows? This was a mutually beneficial arrangement. We got to play and our parents got to have some peace and quiet when our energy was sent outside.
So why are so many neighborhoods quiet today with no children racing to and from each others houses looking for local adventure after school and on weekends?
My friend proposed that it is just more dangerous for kids to be outside on their own today. This made me think. Was it true?
According to police reports from my hometown of Peekskill, New York, crime has actually reduced significantly since I was playing in the streets back in the good old days.
So why would parents today be more worried about sending their children out to play today than my own dear mother was? Statistically, it is safer to be outside playing than it was when I was out there kicking the can. Remind me to call my mother!
The obvious answer is that we are much more aware of crime today than we were when I was a young boy. We are much more fearful as well. Twenty-four hour news reports detailing bad news around the clock ensures that we never forget how dangerous this world is. Of course, any loving parent will want to protect their children from these dangers that seem to exist everywhere and occur constantly.
Another factor that impacts the nature of play today is economic. More households have both mother and father working outside of the home. As a result, many parents look for structured activities for their children to participate in after school while they are at work. When I was growing up, many moms were still at home. Perhaps this plays a big role in the transition from unstructured, imaginative neighborhood play to organized, structured participation in activities and programs for children today?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 60 percent of families with children under 18 years old were dual-income households in 2005-2006. In 1975, only one-third of families with children younger than 18 had both parents working.
There are spectacular youth programs for children to participate in from a very young age. This stems from a need for some parents to have a program for their children to participate in when they aren’t home. Of course, when your friend is in pee-wee soccer, you want to be too — so organized programs have sort of taken many of the players off of their neighborhood streets and placed them into nice uniforms on neutral fields of play.
The footprints of children that once connected houses in neighborhoods have been replaced by tire tracks that connect houses to soccer fields and after school facilities.
Do you see children playing in the streets of your neighborhood after school? Do your own children play with their friends in the streets after school and on weekends?
Can you think of other reasons that might explain this cultural shift from creative, unstructured childhood play to participation in organized, structured activity?