Let Our Children Play

(I’ll be on spring break until April 7. In the meantime, post your comments here or on the Open Dialogue post.)

Since I know that free play is critically important to young children’s development (doesn’t everyone know that?), I’ve been really disturbed by the recent articles on recess coaches. But I was especially saddened when I read an op-ed in Friday’s New York Times by David Elkind, the author of The Hurried Child, a man I consider to be the grandfather of reasonable parenting.

Elkind readily admitted that in the past he would have been opposed to recess coaches. But he states that childhood as we knew it has disappeared, that the culture of childhood no longer exists, and that children no longer experience peer socialization. Rather than calling for an end to all of the nonsense, though, he writes that recess coaches are likely to be a good influence.

I think Elkind has set up a false dichotomy. If kids don’t know how to play anymore, then we need to give them time to play. If kids don’t have time for play, then we need to ensure that they have time to play. But we don’t have to either abolish recess in favor of more academics or have recess coaches. We need to let children play. And we need to let schools know that we won’t abide an end to real recess altogether.

14 thoughts on “Let Our Children Play

  1. This is very sad. The tone of the piece is very pessimistic…almost as if the man has given up and said, “OK, you win”

    Children living in squalor, in the midst of war, in hospital rooms on their death beds still manage to play and be children. Play not disappearing from the face of the earth. What’s rapidly diminishing is adult sense.


  2. Oh, no, Sara, don’t say it. I can’t even bring myself to read his opinions now. I was just thinking about David Elkind this morning, even before I logged on. My daughter turned 18 yesterday and I was reflecting on her life, musing how Elkind was such an early seminal influence, read “Miseducation: Preschoolers at Risk” when she was three and how it changed my life. My gut was already heading in that direction and that book completely validated it, quickly followed by “The Hurried Child.” Never mind that I’ve always found myself swimming upstream.

    David Elkind, don’t go to the dark side! You can’t do this to me.


  3. Play not dis­ap­pear­ing from the face of the earth.
    Commentor not able to place verbs in appropriate place either.
    Should have read: “Play is not disappearing……”


  4. I was also saddened to read that piece. This is a frequent problem in education and, indeed, in many areas of public policy. Instead of calling for the intellectual honesty and hard work required to genuinely fix the recognized problem at hand, the person who should know better allows that, essentially, two wrongs will make a right.

    In Elkind’s case, he has clearly and effectively put forth the case for free play over the course of his career, yet he now says that since parents and educators didn’t follow his advice in setting up the structure of childhood we might as well double-down and add more stupidity on top of stupidity.

    What he should be writing about is how too many parents lack the expertise for their jobs, how educators have ceded their professional judgment and even the field of education to ignorant politicians, and what kind of work is necessary if we want to restore the ability for children to self-develop as they mature.

    We don’t need coaches to “fix” the children during recess, we need coaches to fix the parents and educators unaware of the irreparable damage they are causing while serving politically driven goals of simplistic test scores, scripted learning and assembly-line childhood. Elkind has lost the fire in his belly and needs to rest on his laurels.


  5. John, very well put. I am going to elaborate but traveling tomorrow and up to my ears in work. This is such a good post, such a good topic to discuss today. I’ll pick up on it when I return. This is college acceptance season (got through the applications process) and my daughter has some big decisions to make.

    I’ll be back with this. Thanks, again, John, for your summary of Elkind’s op ed. Very distressing. I read an interview with Elkind some months ago. He expressed fatigue, resignation and profound disappointment that his advice was not followed on a large scale. Now, as PsychMom says, he’s throwing up his hands. What a shame. It has the unfortunate consequence of devaluing all his work. It gives fodder to Elkind’s naysayers who will discredit all of his great work over the years.

    In that same interview, Elkind talked about today’s college students. How they aren’t as hungry, intellectually curious, media saturated as they used to be, always looking for the right answer. He hinted this factored into his decision to retire.

    Elkind is tired. Very tired. He needs a vacation. A long vacation. He was right all along. There’s no need for him to doubt his great work so far into the game now.

    John, can you write an op ed to the Times? We need to keep getting this message out. What Elkind is essentially saying now is we should take the path of least resistance. There are certain things worth fighting for. Fascism is one of them. Protecting childhood is another.


  6. I just wrote: “How they aren’t as hungry, intellectually curious, media saturated as they used to be, always looking for the right answer.”

    Media saturated is what they are NOW. Meant to say, “How they are media saturated and not as hungry or intellectually curious as they used to be, always looking for the right answer.”


  7. This is the same notion as the educator that recently wrote “the case for school on Saturdays” to the Wall Street Journal.

    If something isn’t working, we don’t need more of it.

    Parents, educators, and families need to push back. Otherwise, administrators disconnected from the family unit and the realities of sending children off to school will make decisions that will irrevocably damage a generation of youngsters.

    If we think that the family unit is important, we should solidify its position and be supportive. Pulling kids away for an additional day or hours weekly undermines my ability to serve as a positive role model and for our family to operate as a productive unit.

    What shall I do with all of our extra time? Nothing… nothing scheduled that is. We will hike, bike, visit museums, travel, spend time together, goof off, watch movies, and do all of the stuff where your kid learns to do as you do not as you say.

    If we are unhappy with how some families use that time – let’s help them be able to use the time for good. Just because some families don’t behave as we would like does not mean that we should punish all of them (or any of them).


  8. Kit, along those lines, here’s some humor from the Onion. I hesitated to put it on Facebook, though, because this is what schools already think, that they are much better at “raising” our children than we are. Heck, we are idiots, in their eyes and that is why they feel it necessary to program all of our children’s lives. We should tell them, if we are such idiots, why do you trust us with all this homework? Aren’t YOU better at it?

    Why not just turn your children over to the schools. State run parenting at its finest! We homeschoolers got a good laugh out of this piece. It would be hilarious but someone tell the Onion it’s no joke.

    Increasing Number Of Parents Opting To Have Children School-Homed



  9. Nick –

    Haven’t had a chance to check that book out yet… but, I wonder (from the description) how it relates to two full-time working parents of three children. I could probably homeschool my oldest in less time than it takes to get through his tedious mind-numbing busywork. And, the saddest part is that his is the “gifted” homework.


  10. I was shocked at what I heard about recess coaches as it is quite amazing what kids can achieve at recess without being told what to do. My friend said that when she was in primary school they had set up a kind of “trading system.” You see, the sour flowers (flowers with edible stalks) were in the little kids’ playground and the canteen was in the big kids’ playground, so the big kids would trade lollies for the sour flowers. But it didn’t stop there. The trading system grew and soon other items were traded like cheap plastic jewellery and other stuff that little kids would like. Hair ribbons were the most valuable and were like their currency, white ribbons being of the highest value, followed by green, then tartan. There was a trading post (a tree house in the little kids’ playground) which was like the prime place to find someone to trade with, complete with a “tax man” who you had to “pay” to be allowed to go up to the treehouse (it didn’t really matter what you “paid” them though).

    This is the sort of stuff that kids from grades K-7 achieved and they didn’t even need a recess coach to help them do it.


  11. I’d like to see the recess coaches in action before passing judgment. There’s a chance more kids will play when they’re there…the socially withdrawn kids, the bullied kids. Bullying is a serious, sometimes tragic, problem that kids often cannot solve on their own — although I disagree w/Elkind’s point about it only being serious enough to attract researchers’ attention in the 1970s. More likely, the research was part of a general child advocacy trend that is one of the Baby Boomers’ nicer legacies. Of course now we have cyberbullying to complicate the issue & potentially create more serious fallout. How do recess coaches fit into all this? Not sure, but I’d like to know more before damning the trend.


  12. I’ve seen PlayWorks’ recess coaches in action. They bark out orders to kids almost constantly, albeit with a smile on their faces. I can see kids having fun at one of these sessions, but it stretches credulity to think that they remotely resemble “play.”


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