There’s been so many articles on children and video games over the past few years it’s difficult to know what to link to. I’m sure that this summer there will be another spate of op-ed pieces filled with nostalgic yearnings for games of stickball or kickabout in empty residential streets – and that’s great. Anything that gets people talking about children’s rights to play and to use the outdoor spaces of their neighborhoods, is fine with me. The thing is though, the evidence coming in has been contradictory. One study suggests that “video games can stimulate learning of facts and skills such as strategic thinking, creativity, cooperation and innovative thinking, which are important skills in the information society” while another blames them for the “one child in six (that) has difficulty learning to talk” – while still managing to point a damning finger at busy parents and high property prices. Elsewhere, Richard Louv and many others have drawn links between the current (Western) children’s ‘indoor culture’ of childhood and: obesity, ADHD, depression, social disaffection, poor communication, poor creativity, apathy, sociopathy, and spontaneously turning blue.
Okay, so that was just to see if you were paying attention. The thing is, I want to agree with them. I have met children who have never felt soil before, who say “don’t sit on the grass, there’s dirt under there”, who have never shelled a pea or seen a piece of fruit still on the tree, and felt my heart break. It seems logical that such a massive change in children’s lives should have commensurately vast consequences, and I am pessimistic enough to be tempted by the widely popularized notion that everything, everywhere, is getting worse. It is play that changes my mind.
In playwork, we cultivate a trust in children. We believe that children know, on a deep level that some call intuitive or instinctive, what kind of play they need. We believe that it is our job to support it, provide assistance when asked and advocacy all the time, and to bring new opportunities into the space so that children’s choices, and their play, is informed by the great possibilities of their worlds. For some of the children mentioned above, that involved answering their questions about the tiny park they had just entered, and picking up a caterpillar to demonstrate it was not threatening. But when those children left, I am certain that they went to play video games. What does that say about children’s choices, about priorities and play?
Choice is a complex issue, and for all the children not allowed to go outside there are many too who have no desire to, who believe the natural world to be distant, dangerous or unappealing. Considering where many children grow up, they may be entirely correct. When you talk to children about video games, or facebook or whatever else they are clicking around online, it’s clear that these are complex worlds, with attendant systems of material and social status, that they are experts at navigating. They are playing these new technologies with skill and enthusiasm, and in so doing inadvertantly preparing for lives exactly like ours.
I think that’s what’s so scary. Like many people today, I spend the majority of my waking life on the computer. I use it to work, relax and socialize. If it is a drug, I am addicted. I have bleary eyes, a complaining lower back and a deep sense of annoyance that I’m not hanging upside-down from a tree. In fact I sometimes pretend to myself that I’ll go outside in a minute, once I’ve sent this email, checked that blog – and then I see that it’s dark. I agree that too many children today are living unhealthy lives spent indoors eating junk food and worrying about worrying, but so are too many of their parents. I think that’s why we’re so worried about them, we want better for them than we are willing to accept for ourselves.
Each child contains a wilderness that needs time and space to flourish – but do does every adult, even if it is buried somewhere deep. Time among the trees, under the stars and around a campfire sustains a deep and vital part of our humanity, and when we have time to explore the wildernesses inside and outside of ourselves we have resources we can draw upon for the rest of our lives. So when we’re making our litanies of complaints, saying that indoors and online is no way to spend precious days, we should seriously consider taking our own advice and kicking the kids, and ourselves, out until dark.