Why genuine children play is not returning?

Leon Khaimovich
May 23, 2016 · 12 min read

The way a child wants to play is often very different from the way his parents want him to. The child, however, knows best.

(Bettelheim, 1987)

In this introductory note I would like to start answering the question, which is serving as its title. To do so, first, let’s clarify what “genuine children play” means.

The kind of children play I call genuine happens when children are free from influence of adults be it via supervision, environments designed by adults — like playgrounds, Legos, and computer games, or via time and space restrictions — like playdates, which require coordination with adults’ timetable and are restricted by the need of driving children to and from. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (1876) continues to provide a good idea of what genuine children play is.

Sure, there is no such thing as complete freedom. Yet nowadays it is much more difficult than before for most families to create conditions, which were quite common and natural as recently as 60 or so years ago. At that time most children were living next to their friends and were able to walk to each other homes, were playing either with general purpose toys, like a ball, or were making their toys themselves from whatever they found around, would spend majority of their time outside and away from man-made environments designed specifically for children play. After school and during summer months children were able to be with their friends and away from adult supervision for hours at a time every day of a week. Within pretty lenient limits of time necessary for sleep, family meals, and chores children’s lives would flow at their own pace and speed, which was significantly different from the rhythm of lives of working adults. For all the above reasons, in the past children play was more genuine.

There are numerous benefits children derive from genuine play. A more thorough description of them can be found in “Giving Magic a Chance” presentation I made for the Second Annual Santa Cruz Unschooling Conference in 2015. Here is a brief list:

  • developing and learning at their own pace and in their own way;
  • preserving inquisitiveness;
  • developing healthy self-awareness as a part of the larger whole;
  • forming deep lasting friendships.

The problem is that very few parents can relate these benefits to, on one hand, the play itself, and, on the other hand, to now commonly shared highly valued goals of bringing up happy individuals, leaders of tomorrow, global citizens, people of good character, lifelong learners, who will succeed in college and in making a positive difference. Those who can, still believe that children would obtain the same benefits quicker and better under adults’ supervision and even by taking formal classes.

Many, if not most, of parents, who have young children now, do not have emotional attachment to genuine play derived from their own childhood experience: they grew up under constant adult supervision themselves. And most of those, who experienced the joy of genuine play, have their happy memories crowded out to the periphery of their brain by the demands of providing constant supervision of their children and, often, of full time stressful work.

In other words, modern parents rarely have motivation derived either from understanding the importance of genuine play or from remembering its joys. This lack of stimulus combined with absence of environment, where children could play by themselves, and with numerous obstacles to creating such environment, necessitates significant and well-aimed effort for returning genuine play into children’s lives. Clearly seeing the impediments to this change and how they work together and reinforce each other would help with the task of re-introducing genuine play. Because children are very closely controlled now by adults, the barriers fall mostly into one of the two categories: created by parents or by service providers. The particular way in which parents and service providers interact, because the former are usually consumers of the services provided by the latter, contributes to the persistence of the problem.

Before listing the impediments, I would like to clarify, that alleviating the influence of parents and service providers would be not enough for the genuine children play to bounce back. Even if a group of parents would decide to be unobtrusive for long periods of time and occupy themselves with keeping away peddlers of quick and easy happiness (many teachers and tutors, producers of TV and other children programs, and sellers of most of children toys and computer games fall into this category) while leaving their children alone so that they can play together, it would not work well anymore. Continuity of relaying the skills of playing is broken: there are no older children, who could teach the younger ones how to play, how to stay safe, and how to resolve conflicts without help of adults. Thus bringing children together and leaving them alone doesn’t work very well (Christakis, 2016).

Parents’ role in resisting the re-emergence of genuine play

Despite of the progress of technology assisting with every day chores and proliferation of services supposed to help with it too, modern parents are finding themselves stressed and burned out. Furthermore, for a number of reasons, which are well discussed elsewhere (Hochschild, 1997; Cooper, 2014), there is a growing feeling among people with families that they cannot rely on their environment for support and, on the opposite, have to compete with it. Under these conditions, what parents do with their children is in a large degree shaped by two of their fears: to lose affection of their children and to look like bad parents. This situation creates or strengthens the obstacles to re-emergence of genuine play, which are listed below. The list is presented in no particular order, though I tried to group the obstacles according to their causes or effects.

P1. Parents, because they interpret children behavior from their own insecure win-lose adult relationship reference point (see The Playground by Ray Bradbury for a good illustration), are shocked by unrefined children play, which often becomes physical and/or “not fair.”

P2. In the absence of real friends, parents are trying to use their children as their own friends. The video I am not your friend, kid! (Because I love you.) and its sequel Not your friend, kid, but always your ally! by Kristina Kuzmic make the point very well.

P3. Absorbed in their own efforts to find and keep close relationships and stressed by the tasks’ difficulty, parents have little time and energy left for helping their children to spend more free time with friends.

P4. If parents don’t get along, they will not try to bring children together or even will keep them away from each other.

P5. Misplaced market exchange mentality makes parents unwilling to let their children to visit other children, because they feel that they will have to reciprocate later. For well-off families, it’s easier to use a paid childcare/activities provider.

P6. When children don’t live in a walking distance from each other, the necessity to drive children and schedule their play dates creates an additional obstacle.

P7. Even when playdates are scheduled, and children are driven to play with each other, they fall under the strict restraints of adult schedules. It’s just too painful for children to get fully immersed into playing with others, if it will have to be abruptly terminated in exactly 1.5 hours by a parent, who needs to follow her or his inflexible adult schedule. Also, it hurts to wait for 2 weeks for another chance to be with friends for another 1.5 hour term.

P8. Parents are pursuing maximum effectiveness (in their opinion) preparing children for highly competitive and corrupt (in their opinion) world (like already described in Emile) by instructor-led programs, which emphasize learning. Unsupervised play with peers doesn’t seem to be effective enough.

P9. Parents turn children into whiny brats incapable for deep intimate relationship misapplying latest child-rearing approaches (like attachment parenting and positive discipline, which are overly emphasizing empathy and civil behavior in order to sell their ideas).

P10. Self-reinforcing cycle #1: Having bratty impudent children in the house wears parents out. -> They don’t have energy for making an extra effort needed to get children outside together. -> Parents are getting even more tired and burned out.

P11. Outdoors are considered messy and dangerous by parents, especially mothers, who got accustomed to sterile and otherwise closely managed environment of people, who are in control of their lives.

P12. People, who are not in control of their lives, are often leading such unhealthy lives, that one may be hesitant exposing his or her children to them.

P13. Because of variety of reasons most parents never will read the books providing a clear and/or detailed argument for genuine children play, like Emile (Rousseau 1762/1979) and even The Playground (Bradbury 1953), and are put off by titles like A Nation of Wimps (Marano 2008)and The Closing of the American Mind (Bloom 1987).

P14. Parents resist expert advice (often for good reasons), but easily fall prey to marketing propaganda appealing to parents’ fears and insecurities. Very few of even well-educated parents will have time and patience to read 17-page long chapter “Expert Advice or Inner Experience” (Bettelheim 1988, p. 15).

P15. Parents are attracted by examples of conspicuous consumption. This makes it difficult to create and sustain genuine children play, which — in order to be ongoing — has to be a low-key activity requiring little resources and effort. Aggressively marketed and advertised institutional programs at the university’s arboretum, renowned museum, or even local police department will take priority.

P16. The activities meant to maintain children’s institutional affiliations (play dates and birthday party invitations with children attending the same school/program), are also taking priority comparing with finding out, who lives next door or plays in the nearby creek.

P17. Friendship relationships are considered inferior and reserved for those, who cannot have so-called “friendship plus” (it means, sex). This mindset, which makes friendship just a step stone for getting into a real (i.e. sexual) relationship, makes many parents quite wary of friendships even between children of the same gender.

Service providers’ role in resisting the re-emergence of genuine play

Most of even well-intentioned service providers are strongly affected by the need to make living from products and services they sell to children’s parents. Consciously or not they started exploiting parents’ insecurities and fears mentioned above. They also figured out that most parents will not try to learn about the quality of services provided to their youngsters and will gladly pay, if their children are happy, safe, and occupied (cf. Huxley, 1932). Also, there are unscrupulous peddlers of fast easy happiness, and everybody has to compete with them on the level-field of market economy.

On a deeper plane, genuine children play requires environment, which was not configured and transformed by minds of grownups. The moment there is a service provided by adults to help with genuine play, the play becomes less genuine. We may need these services initially, but eventually, if they are successful, they have to work themselves out of the picture.

S1. Self-reinforcing cycle #2: not enough free play -> play makes its way through the backdoor into classroom, destroying classroom education->poor results preparing children for the competitive world-> more emphasis on classes and developmental programs -> even less time for genuine free play.

S2. Self-reinforcing cycle #3: No other children playing outside makes it less interesting for children to go out of their houses. Products like Pokemon Go may take some children outside, but then they draw them inside the “augmented reality” and therefore prevent children from genuinely playing.

S3. Self-reinforcing cycle #4: The fewer children play with other children, the smaller is the interest in serving them by market economy. This is good, because this way the pressure of market economy is removed from genuine children play. This is bad, because marketing machine is not helping with promoting genuine children play.

S4. Readily available computer games and indoor developmental toys (like Lego, Playmobile, or doll houses) keep children indoors (=safe) and quiet, which is enough to make parents buy these toys.

S5. Nature Connectedness programs focus on children with “acute nature deficit syndrome” (easier to sell to parents and drum up the importance to politicians) and ignore majority of normal children, who don’t need “nature as medicine.” The programs bring children closer to nature, but get in the way of them playing with each other.

S6. In order to attract funding and with the goal of maintaining the share of GDP, which is channeled for educators’ salaries, nonprofit organizations like Defending the Early Years created a boogeyman of “play deficient classroom” (Strauss,2015). The concept and the movement derail the attention to genuine play by replacing it by “classroom-based play.”

S7. A paid childcare/activities provider will not allow other children around, if she is not paid for taking care of them. The paid programs take away children from other children, who just want to play outside.

Interaction between parents and service providers

In the United States both parents and service providers are firmly embedded in the highly developed market economy, which basically has two types of roles for its actors: consumers and producers. When there is a problem, people are supposed either to find a service they can use for taking care of this problem, or to be the ones, who are providing this service. In those rare cases, when the service is not readily available, we expect that somebody with entrepreneurial mindset will step in and create one, which can be sold at profit. It is quite indicative how the recently popular DIY (do-it-yourself) movement has quickly created an ecosystem, where production of easy-to-put-together kits, running DIY workshops, publishing DIY media, organizing so-called Maker fairs and DIY conferences, and teaching DIY skills is again delegated to paid service providers.

Similarly, it is easy to see what is going to happen, if revival of genuine children play will be perceived as a problem. Parents will start looking for organizations solving it, and there is no doubt that individuals with entrepreneurial spirit will start providing services and charging for them (cf. Chernova, 2016; Strauss,2015). Yet service providers are adults too. Additionally they are limited by the restrictions stemming from numerous laws meant to ensure children safety and by financial pressures of running a business (cf. Huxley 1932). Thus the goal of having children free of adult supervision and away from environments built by adults specifically for their play cannot be achieved in this way.

What can be done

The sheer number and deep-seated psychological and cultural nature of the above mentioned obstacles may make one feel despondent about the prospects of genuine play returning into lives of our children. I think there is a need for resilience, patience, and careful planning based on deep understanding of all the involved forces. But at this point I don’t see any reason for despair or need for urgent intervention. In fact, acting hastily may cause more harm than good.

I think that next we should use this article as input for brainstorming both the causes and effects of resistance to return of genuine children play: something along the lines IDEO is using as part of their design thinking. The output I am looking for is a skeleton of a dynamic causal model, which would allow us to find the leverage points for setting in motion the forces creating the conditions under which the genuine play would happen. I believe that such forces exist and just wait for a small initial push.


Bettelheim, Brunno. (1987). The importance of play. The Atlantic, March issue. Last retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1987/03/the-importance-of-play/305129/ on April 12, 2016.

Bettelheim, Brunno. (1988). Good Enough Parent. New York, NY: Vintage Books

Bloom, Allan. (1987). The Closing of the American Mind. New York, NY: Simon Schuster Trade

Bradbury, Ray. (1953) The Playground. In Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (hardcover). New York, NY: Ballantine

Cooper, Marianne. (2014). Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure Times. Oakland, California: University of California Press

Chernova, Yulia. (2016). Play-Based Education Network Tinkergarten Gets Support from Omidyar. The Wall Street Journal, March 18. Last retrieved from http://blogs.wsj.com/venturecapital/2016/03/18/play-based-education-network-tinkergarten-gets-support-from-omidyar/ on April 22, 2016.

Christakis, Erika. (2016). The Importance of Being Little. New York, NY: Viking

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. (1997). The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work. New York, NY: Owl Books

Huxley, Aldous. (1932). Brave New World. London: Chatto & Windus

Khaimovich, Leon. (2015). Dads, Boys, and Tomboys of Santa Cruz: Giving Magic a Chance. Presented at Second Annual Santa Cruz Homeschool Unconference. Retrieved from http://www.khaimovich.name/DBTC_presentation.pdf on April 8, 2016.

Marano, H. E. (2008). A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting. New York, NY: Crown Archetype

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. (1762/1979) Emile: or On Education. Translated by Allan Bloom. New York, NY: Basic Books

Strauss, Valerie. (2015). How ‘twisted’ early childhood education has become — from a child development expert. The Washington Post, March 24. Last retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2015/11/24/how-twisted-early-childhood-education-has-become-from-a-child-development-expert/ on May 22, 2016.

Leon Khaimovich

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I am an Organizational Excellence Canary (OEC), and when I peep, excellence is yours to keep. http://oecisland.com/oec-vc-prop.pdf

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