March 26 2014
The War on Fun
In 1859, the esteemed magazine Scientific American issued a warning about young people's "pernicious excitement" over a trendy game: chess. The shuffling of pawns and rooks was "a mere amusement of a very inferior character, which robs the mind of valuable time that might be devoted to nobler acquirements," the magazine complained. Worse yet, the game offered "no benefit whatever to the body."
Bad for You: Exposing the War on Fun (Henry Holt), a nonfiction comic book by Kevin C. Pyle and Scott Cunningham, shows that virtually every popular amusement was considered dangerous before it was widely understood and accepted. Chess was going to distract kids. Comic books would turn kids against their parents and cause "reading disorders." TV was going to "hurt radio, conversation, reading and the patterns of family life." Video games would make kids more violent. The Internet would "scatter" the users' "attention." Parents do not, by and large, want to deny their children fun, but as this comic illustrates, it's easy to fear what's new and to wind up working against your kids' best interests.
And when adults aren't afraid of what's new, they're getting nervous about something that's old. Like chess. Or playgrounds.
The original intent of public play spaces, Pyle and Cunningham explain, was to give kids a safe place to have fun instead of busy streets or dirty alleyways. No less than President Theodore Roosevelt is quoted as declaring that "playgrounds should be provided for every child as much as schools." And for a while, kids got some terrific playgrounds, especially those designed by artists and child psychologists to "stimulate imaginative play."
Sadly, that's not how playgrounds are made anymore. Now overprotective regulations and the fear of litigation drive design. Swings are removed, and "improvements" like heat-retaining rubber mats are added. The most common designs have been likened by Susan G. Solomon, author of American Playgrounds: Revitalizing Community Space, to waiting in line for fast food; children's options are limited to one-directional movement. As Solomon has explained, kids mostly "wait, go up, go across, go down, start all over again."
At many schools, managing what type of fun kids have has become a priority. The schools want to mitigate the risk of fighting and bullying-an extreme result of physical play-so instead of monitoring children's free play, they institute "teacher-supervised physical activities" or bring in a paid recess supervisors. Playworks, the biggest name in the recess business, sends "coaches" to implement "structured play," which turns out to mean old-style kids' games like mother-may-I. The authors of Bad for You are right that a professional recess coach is better than no recess at all (which also happens), but why should it be a choice between worse and worst?
Meanwhile, the market for books like Free to Learn (Basic) and Playborhood (Free Play Press) grows, as even well-intentioned parents feel the need for validation of their impulse to let kids be kids. Once a mom might just open the door and tell her offspring to go play; now, there's a good chance she's been too traumatized by exaggerated media reports of abductions and other dangers. Kids are about half as likely to get abducted off the street as they are to get hit by lightning, and as the authors shrewdly ask: "How many people do you know who have been hit by lightning?"
Bad for You isn't a complete antidote to parental insecurity, but it does have a valuable lesson to convey: We don't have to fall for every mass hysteria about the evils of texting, Marilyn Manson, Mortal Kombat, or Dungeons and Dragons.