Friday, October 11, 2013

What is childhood for?

This may seem like an odd question to ask, in that it isn't apparent to all of us that childhood is FOR anything, so much as it simply is a fact of life. Childhood is for being a child.

We are, however, nothing if not a goal-oriented society, so it begs the question. What utility does childhood serve? Is it for teaching skills? For learning to behave in an ethical manner? Is it to prepare one to be an adult? Maybe it is training for late-childhood athletic endeavors, or for academic sucess. Perhaps it can be viewed as an extended employee orientation.

In other words, what is the goal of childhood?

I think there are very good reasons to balk at assigning goals to an extended developmental stage of life. But that is, undoubtedly, what is commonly done, starting at a very early age. Gone are the days when kindergarten was a half-day of structured play with naps thrown in. Today's kindergartners are in school all-day, and are expected to meet certain academic benchmarks. After school, they might go to a twice-weekly Junior Football League or Pee-Wee soccer practice to prepare them for their Saturday morning competition.

You might think that the creep of goal-oriented striving starts with kindergarten, but that is not the case. Developmental researchers have been defining and standardizing the meaning of normal for years, and any early childhood education program responsible for the care of pre-school children is expected to get with the program:

“To this end, the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services are working together to ensure that our children have a strong foundation in both the educational and the social-emotional domains that provide children with the preparation they need to enter kindergarten ready for success.”

Taken at face value, this is not objectionable. What kind of person could possibly be against successful, well-developed children? Parents who entrust their children to the care of another understandably want assurances that their children are receiving the best care/education possible. In order to know if this is the case, outcomes and data are required- outcomes and data that can be measured against a standard. How else could one demonstrate the utility of their early childhood education program?

The standardization of childhood may be intended to ensure that no child is left behind, but in practice it does little more than homogenize a generation of children. Instead of learning their own limits and interests, they are informed of them, and then held accountable to them. You could say that childhood has become micromanaged.

In fact, this is what the psychologist Peter Gray is saying in an outstanding recent article in the online journal aeon. In the article, he argues that a decrease in child-directed play, starting in the 1960's, and the corresponding increase in adult directed activity has resulted in a sharp decrease in cooperative behavior, empathy and creativity, combined with a rise in narcissism, anxiety and depression.

Whatever the goal of childhood may be, I doubt that this is it.

The article, which I highly encourage you to read, goes on to offer a spirited defense of play as a vital developmental activity, and a bracing attack on the highly-regimented, goal-oriented education and early childhood development practices that are popular today.

What exactly are we talking about here- what is play? According to physician and researcher Dr. Stuart Brown, play can be tersely defined as “pleasurable, apparently purposeless activity”. The benefits of play are legion:

“an actively playful life establishes the earliest sense of self; sustains trust; provides increased enthusiasm for effectiveness in learning; prevents violence; invigorates the body; lessens the consequences of stress; contributes directly to the capacity to approach and solve complex life problems; and rewards and directs the living of life in accord with innate talents.”

It seems clear that standardization and play are mutually exclusive. The reason for the existence of standardization is to assign purpose, to structure and orient behavior around a goal. Play is a form of exuberant activity that is defined in part by its very lack of purpose.

When I think of play I think of the childhood game of tag. While most iterations of the game do share an ultimate goal; getting someone else to be “it”, the paths towards that goal are as diverse as the minds of the children playing and the environment they happen to be in. The rules of the game will depend on the age and skill of the participants and the physical characteristics of the location. There may be a centrally located tree that functions as a good “base”, or a certain weedy area that should be determined as off-limits. If the game is played at night, flashlights may be used, if there is a wide range of ability, a type of freeze rule in which a stronger player can help a weaker one is helpful.

There is not one master rule for a pleasurable game of tag. The purpose of the game itself is obedient to the greater aim of the participants- to have fun. The game adapts endlessly, adaptation itself being one of the great virtues of playfulness.

In this constant renegotiation and transfiguration of the details of the play, in its adaptivity to diversity, play demonstrates a genius for particularity. Play reveals to us qualities of a particular person, place or thing that may not be obvious to someone looking at them with a specific, precertified goal in mind.

The lack of play and the rise of “bigness” are highly interrelated. The list of bigs is itself quite big; big government, big business, big data, big ideas for big problems, big companies, big, centralized education, big stars and big dreams. The rise of institutionalized, adult-directed childhood sports could even be dubbed “big play”. All of these imply that there is one best way of doing things, and that particulal places and people and subcultures are really just farm teams to the big leagues.

Standardization, an enforcement mechanism for the “biggering” of culture, devalues its subsidiaries and strips people of autonomy. The rules of the game are determined elsewhere, the job of children are to shoehorn themselves into them. This is not a good way to foster resilience or creativity, both of which, according to Gray's article, are in decline.

Our children, our places and our lives are not raw material for something else. They aren't raw material for anything at all. Rather than continue the accelerating trend of treating childhood as a training program for consumer society, perhaps we should defend their- and our- right to play. We might discover something of great value that we've managed to miss, in our drive to busy ourselves making big things. If you've ever watched a child play, you must be sure to recognize the incredible ability of children to find wonder in places you have forgotten to look.

Nathan Gates