Friday, August 15, 2008

Child’s play used to be as simple as, well, child’s play.

Yet on television today is an ongoing ad campaign that urges children to play outside for at least an hour a day. The images in the ads, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, show standard-fare outdoor activities: ring around the rosie, kickball, jump-rope, hopscotch.

What at first seems like sensible advice, at a time of increasing childhood obesity, seems shocking once the ad sinks in. In the not-too-distant past, such activities hardly needed to be encouraged; children engaged in them spontaneously.

Now they’re being publicized using taxpayer dollars - as though researchers at the Centers for Disease Control just discovered their beneficial potential.

The HHS ads conclude with a reference to the Web site, where one can find daily tips on healthy living. “Just don’t stay too long,” it cautions computer users.

Reading online about exercising, after all, would be self-defeating.

Has independent play - “Go do something outside until your sister yells ‘Dinner time’” - become such a relic that we’ve actually reached such a pathetic state of passivity?

“Yes,” says Olga Jarrett, an early-childhood-education professor at Georgia State University who runs the U.S. affiliate of the International Play Organization, which promotes children’s “right to play” in face of increasing academic intensity and disappearing recess time in elementary schools.

“The culture has changed tremendously.”

The most frequently fingered culprits of childhood torpor are TV, video games, the Internet - all the two-dimensional distractions of a technology-laden civilization.

There’s a three-dimensional influence, though, that may be just as damaging: parents.

More to the point, the oversupervision of children practiced by many well-to-do suburban parents - “helicopter parents” who hover over their little ones’ every move.

Glenn Reynolds, the University of Tennessee law professor and popular Instapundit blogger, has written that perhaps one of the reasons U.S. fertility rates are declining is that while the economic benefits of having children - cheap labor on a farm, say - have all but disappeared, the “social costs” have spiraled upward. Such costs include those imposed by “safety fascists” and upper-middle-class expectations of constant invigilation.

Ironically, free-spirited outdoor activity might be suffocating under the gaze of helicopter parenting at the same time it offers relief from the stress that accompanies such parenting.

Oversupervision stems in part from the rigidly structured culture of hyperachievement today’s parents have created in their homes, but there’s also the overwrought fear of abduction - the kind of freak occurrence so effectively dramatized in last year’s chilling adaptation of the Dennis Lehane novel “Gone Baby Gone.”

The Vanished Children’s Alliance says a child is reported missing or abducted every 40 seconds.

Child Shield, U.S.A., a child protection service, says there’s a “better than 1 in 100 chance your child may become missing.”


Happily, these statistics, as presented, are misleading. Those figures count runaways and abductions by family members - leverage-grabbing desperation stunts in custody cases, for example - or acquaintances, such as the drifter-loon welcomed into Elizabeth Smart’s house to do a paint job.

This is not to say abduction by strangers is a figment of the popular imagination. It is to say, however, that there’s a happy middle ground between oversupervision and abject neglect.

There’s a scene in Jim Sheridan‘s great movie memoir “In America” (2002) in which his two young daughters are seen walking the streets of Manhattan unsupervised, sometimes at night.

He’s blase about them waiting alone in his taxicab while he auditions for a play. They go trick-or-treating - under his watch, but out of his reach - up and down the stairs of a crack-house tenement.

In my capacity as a film critic, I thought: Mr. Sheridan is exaggerating for dramatic effect here; no way he lets his girls roam Hell’s Kitchen. In some other capacity, I thought: Believe it; parents haven’t always worried preternaturally about kidnapping.

There’s something romantic about that other world: the world before “play dates,” Chuck E. Cheese, indoor playgrounds and Amber Alerts. The world where soccer was not yet the national children’s pastime, because - oh, admit it, bobo parent - the risk of injury is slight and girls can play, too.

Children were given a measure of freedom, despite the possibility that they would turn into Jets and Sharks, or worse.

To be sure, it’s not just helicopter parents who are stamping out spontaneous play; there are all too many negligent parents who give their children too much freedom, permitting them to vegetate and rack up body weight.

The HHS “Get Up and Play” campaign is well-intentioned. Whether parents are watching, or ignoring, their every move, today’s children need a lot more fresh air.

However, the ads may be a sign that it’s too late - that we’re on the path to the slothful dystopia depicted in the movie “Wall•E.”

We’ve reached a pass where the federal government needs to tell children it’s time to go out and play.

Kind of gives the phrase “nanny state” a whole new meaning, doesn’t it?

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