The lost art of play
Dec 13, 2017 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
December greetings dear readers! As we look to the start of another new year, I’ve been thinking about inspiration. Specifically how modern society inspires our future leaders – in a world where kids’ activities seem more restricted than ever, how do we cultivate that “go get ’em” attitude that defined the firebrands of yesteryear? This entire line of thought popped into my mind while driving home from my favorite Phoenix spot: The Desert Botanical Gardens. The gardens are near the airport and, on the way home, I am treated to dozens of jet trails lacing the sky.
Their beautiful pattern made me nostalgic for the days when you could actually hug your friends & family before they got on the aircraft. Every time I read the American Airlines magazine, the employees featured mention how vital watching the airport hustle & bustle up-close influenced their career choice. Their passion jumps off the page and now that security is top-notch, what’s a young pilot to do? Can a video game offer the same level of connection to a dream? Let’s look a bit more into the lost art of play and see if our departure from vintage-era trends has a tangible impact. I’m curious to know your thoughts in the comments below!
We can start our journey by reviewing the key tenets of play for a mid-century kid. Play time in the 1950s was heavily slanted to the outdoors, with kids forming friendships with their neighborhood counterparts during unstructured playtime. This time typically involved little in the way of “proper” toys (or what we would call toys in modern terms). A football, can, sidewalk chalk, or a tree – these simple things became something much more significant with a dose of imagination and collaboration. I haven’t been able to locate statistics on exactly how much time 1950s kids spent outdoors playing, but based on the fact that television hadn’t really taken off yet, homework was less involved than it is now, and more parents were home to watch over the kids after school – I’d bet the delta between then and now is pretty big.
To put it in perspective, only about half of today’s kids get outside time once a day (that’s not specifically play time – we’re talking going for a simple walk!). Childcare considerations seem to impact this percentage the most. For the other half of kids, they are getting outdoor time – but it’s not the unstructured “playing around time” of the past. Their outdoor activities are largely a result of various sports clubs, which may be more of a stressor than time for inspiration and reflection.
This shift seems seismic to me and scientists mostly agree. Some researchers have started to approach this phenomenon at the cellular level. Playing is actually much more meaningful than you may expect. The art of play impacts our neuron connections at the front of the brain. These are the neurons that control how we assess situations, problem solve, and understand our emotions. (All pretty important developmental milestones in my opinion!) The structured play we discussed above is not helpful in these connections; the play needs to be free from rules and constant adult oversight. With all the pressure modern parents place on grades, it’s interesting to note that countries with more recess time actually have students with higher academic achievements.
So it seems the old adage of “go outside and play” is actually a pretty important mantra to use in modern life. As you’re preparing to needlepoint this in your next throw pillow, let’s look at this issue from another perspective. It seems safe to say our modern society values technology in a way that’s much more invasive than previous generations. If our kids aren’t out and about, they may be streaming a show on their iPad or playing an educational game on their LeapPad. Can all this screen time fill in the gaps left by the lack of outdoor play? It seems like it can help in some areas, but the risks appear to be serious and warrant further research. Scientists are currently assessing a link with impaired speech development and delays in cognitive reasoning abilities.
What’s a modern parent to do as society continues on the path of technological adoration? As with anything, there’s never one “right way.” Balance is the thing and perhaps we can still learn a lot from yesteryear. A more relaxed approach, a little bit less of the synced Google calendars and a little bit more of strolls in the park. While I don’t foresee kids being able to wander about airports undeterred again, perhaps society can still bring in some tangible inspiration. We may not be able to see the inner workings of a pilot’s daily routine, but we can still look up to the jet trails and dream!