PUBLISHER'S NOTEBOOK: Do children need a manual for childhood?By the way, for any adults interested in the subject of children's play, you can't do better than the classic work by Iona and Peter Opie.
by David Phillips
As the Christmas shopping season kicked off a few weeks ago, I recommended buying a book as a gift. That's because, according to a recent report by the National Endowment for the Arts, reading provides some amazing lifelong benefits for individuals and may just preserve our civilization.
If you are a parent, two books you may have considered are "The Dangerous Book for Boys" and "The Daring Book for Girls." That these two books are on the best seller lists raises some interesting questions, perhaps more intriguing ones than the study showing how little people read for pleasure today.
The books are manuals for youth on how to be, well, kids. The book for girls shows them how to do such activities as press flowers, jump rope, use a pencil to put up their hair, play slumber party games, set up a lemonade stand, do hand clap games, tell ghost stories, play jacks, pitch tents and have endless adventures. The book for boys explains things such as how to make paper airplanes, skip stones across water, play in the backyard, tie knots, go fishing and build a treehouse.
Has childhood changed so much in our modern world that we need a manual to explain how to enjoy childhood?
It isn't just that the cell phone, computer screen and television set have replaced good, old fashioned romping around, parents are so protective today that it seems every single moment of youth has to be scripted. Even the authors of one of the books add a disclaimer that "all of these activities should be carried out under adult supervision only."
Although no study has been done on this subject, the lack of unstructured play in youth today may lead to negative consequences on our economic, social and civic life, similar to what the recent study found was happening due to our lack of reading.
Of course, in this ultra-serious age, advocating seemingly mindless play is a tough sell. We all know reading is serious stuff and many people became worked up over the study on the consequences of not reading. Mention play, though, and people will shrug it off as a cute byproduct of being young, not something that could lead to the downfall of civilization.
After all, we have, as a society, made it difficult to play. Even preschool children are plopped in front of a computer or television screen in hopes of giving them an edge in soaking up knowledge. Academic learning, and testing, is starting earlier than ever. Parents insist on scheduling their children's lives so they become as booked as adults. Fear prevents adults from encouraging children to freely roam the parks and dwindling public green spaces.
As surprising as the best selling manuals on how to be children is the need for new occupations and organizations that advocate play.
For example, in England, a new professional, called a "playworker," is trained to facilitate play with children in adventure playgrounds and other settings. These professionals don't lead the children in play, but encourage it. And in the United States there is an Alliance for Childhood, which states that the benefits of play are so impressive that every day of childhood should be a day for play.
This harkening back to a time when children played from morning to night, running, jumping, playing dress-up and creating endless stories out of their active imaginations may appear as mere nostalgia. However, fun time really does have many serious benefits.
Play is the way children learn about themselves and the world. Through play, children learn to get along with others and sort out conflicts, develop motor skills, practice their language skills, boost their independence, self-esteem and creativity, relieve stress and improve their psychological well-being.
In a 2004 project of the Alliance for Childhood, researchers interviewed experienced kindergarten teachers in Atlanta. These teachers described how play had disappeared from their curriculum over the preceding 10 years, and reported that when they gave children time to play, the children "didn't know what to do" and had "no ideas of their own."
The alliance concludes that for those of us used to the fertile, creative minds of 5-year-olds, this is a shocking statement that bodes ill for the development of creative thinking. It points to a sad future for our society if citizens have no ideas of their own.
I'm not saying to throw away those books and move on to the next great cause. But, we should all realize that meaning is not always transparent to us, that purpose doesn't have to end in a pre-determined goal.
Allowing your children to explore the world through playfulness may be the most lasting gift you can give this holiday season. So, turn off the television, refrain from directing their activities and give the kids some space to be silly and childish.
Your children will thank you when they become creative, well-adjusted adults. And, they may remind you that play isn't reserved just for young children. Playfulness is a worthy trait in adults as well, but that is another chapter in this never ending story.
Have a merry, and perhaps at times, even silly, celebration this holiday season. Best wishes from the staff of Bluff Country Newspaper Group.
It just occurs to me to wonder if anyone has thought to ask Mrs. Opie (Mr. Opie died in 1982) her thoughts on The Dangerous Book for Boys, or on the present need for Dangerous Books for Boys and Daring Books for Girls.