Play Can Teach What Nonstop Schooling Can’t

lenore skenazyBY LENORE SKENAZY | In ancient times — say, the 1950s, or ’60s, or ’70s or maybe even the ’80s — children were expected to waste a good deal of their time riding their bikes to nowhere, making up basketball moves, or drawing with chalk. 

Their parents didn’t worry that this meant they were going to end up as drug addicts, or at least at a second-tier college. In fact, most parents were eager to shoo kids out of the house. But that was before something began taking over all waking hours of the day.


When we think about how different childhood is today — structured, supervised, stressful — we tend to blame helicopter parents, or the culture of fear that has made stepping outside without mom or dad into an activity mentally accompanied by scary organ music. After all, every parent’s worst nightmare could be just around the corner!

But Peter Gray, author of the basic psychology textbook used in colleges across the country (including Harvard), says that while “increased fears from the media” are partly to blame for this new, constricted childhood, there’s another force at play.

Or, rather, not at play.

“Part of it that we don’t give enough weight to is the increasing amount of influence of schooling.”

Think about how school dominates the lives of kids today. When Gray, now a white-haired professor, was growing up, the school year was five weeks shorter. I remember that, too — a three-month summer vacation. Bliss! No one was freaking out about the “summer slide” — kids forgetting the lessons they left behind in May. Summer was seen as the charger kids needed, not a drain.

As for what happened during the school year itself, there was little or no homework in the lower grades, unless the kids had to do something like gather leaves for a project. No nightly homework sheets. No nightly reading log, the bane of my existence as a mom. (Forcing your kids to read a certain amount each day turns out to be the perfect way to make them hate reading. Try it!)

Gray, who is at Clemson University this week to give a talk at the Rebooting Play Conference, as am I, says that those logs are just one hint of how parents are now supposed to continue the school day at home. They are expected to review their kids’ homework and, often, to sign it. They’re also expected to volunteer at the school, as reading buddies, or run the book sale. It’s as if school has become the biggest force in our lives, inescapable from morning to night. Parents are told that this is how it has to be if they want their kids to succeed.

Once parents are taught to be “school partners,” says Gray, “all of society develops the view that children grow best when carefully monitored and guided. And it used to be children grow themselves.”

This is not to say that kids learn algebra by climbing trees. But they do learn how to gauge risk, and handle fear. Playing a game of catch, even against a wall, they learn how to do something over and over to get it right. (Think how much easier it is to learn that lesson on the playground than in the classroom.) Playing with friends, they learn how to control their impulses, share, throw it a little easier to the youngest kid — a trait also known as empathy — all the arts of being human.

These activities don’t stunt intellectual development, they make young minds curious and creative.

In an essay titled, “Be Glad of Our Failure to Catch Up with China in Education,” Gray compares our education system to China’s, where grammar school kids spend nearly 10 hours a day studying. By high school, they face a 12-and-a-half–hour school day.

Kids are forced to endure this “to get a high score on the ‘gaokao,’ the national examination that is the sole criterion for admitting students to college,” writes Gray.

What happens to those high-scoring winners?

“A common term used in China now to refer to the general results of their educational system is ‘gaofen dineng,’ which means, literally, ‘high scores, but low ability.’ Because students spend nearly all of their time studying, they have little chance to do anything else,” like develop interests, physical stamina, or social skills.

That’s a “success” America would do well to avoid.

To raise the kind of engaged and eager kids who grow into entrepreneurs and simply happy citizens, we need to stop school from seeping into every hour and activity of the day.

Fooling around turns out to be the best schooling around.

Lenore Skenazy is a keynote speaker who authored the book, and founded the blog, Free-Range Kids (freerangekids.com).