This type of play, both potent and transporting, has all but disappeared from contemporary childhood, Miller notes. Cognitive scientists, who investigate the basic logic that allows children to learn so much about the world so quickly, are worried. This “basic logic” also allows children “to envision possible future worlds, very different from the worlds we inhabit now, and to bring those worlds into being,” says Alison Gopnik. An international leader in the field of children’s learning and author of The Scientist in the Crib, Gopnik explains that “this ability to imagine alternative possibilities and make them real—literally to change the world—is a deeply important part of our evolutionary inheritance.”
For many children, that inheritance has been jeopardized. Middle— and upper—income children are especially pinched. Certainly, these kids play. Playgrounds haven’t been abandoned; toys are not obsolete. But today’s kids cram a lot of activities each week in between those forty-plus screen hours, from music lessons to soccer games to science club to supervised “play dates.” And parents’ heightened fears, fueled by the media saturation coverage when certain children go missing, further conspires to keep kids indoors and under someone’s watchful eye.
Roger Hart’s latest research on this topic has him rattled. Hart is a geographer, professor of environmental and developmental psychology at City University of New York, and the founder of the Children’s Environments Research Group. Thirty-three years ago, as a dissertation project, he studied eighty-six children in a rural Vermont village. “I realized nobody had really studied the natural history of kids,” he told me. “We know more about the ecology of baboons than the ecology of children.” Hart’s findings, published in 1978, revealed that children’s experience of “place” in the 1970s involved time they spent alone, or with peers, exploring their outdoor environment.
Recently, Hart initiated a new series of observations in the same rural village, and found stark differences from his original data.
“Thirty-three years ago, a nine-year-old boy could run anywhere he wanted. Now, that freedom is withheld until at least adolescence. And even then, the kid has to tell the parent where he’s going,” Hart said. “Today, most children in town don’t ever play outside alone.”
Much has been written about the effects of such limitations: We’re over-protecting our children, putting them at risk for obesity, and so on. But Hart is interested in speculating beyond those issues. “For example,” he mused, “it’s interesting to ask what it means when children spend less time with other children, or when they no longer direct their own play. They rely on adult direction or the implicit direction in manufactured activity. You tell the kid to go out and play, and the kid says, ‘Play what?’ ”