More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
The Death of Childhood?
by Robert Needlman, M.D.
Thu, May 24, 2007

My 18-year-old daughter told me this tonight: She and her boyfriend decided to have a picnic on the grounds of our local JCC, a lovely large green space. They wandered over to the old playground, one they had loved when they were little. It had a slide shaped like a fish, a climbing structure with a rope bridge and a "tar pit" that you had to swing over, and other cool stuff. But now the playground was overgrown with weeds, fenced off, unusable.

Then they walked over to the new playground. I have not seen the place myself, but this is how my daughter described it: There is a cluster of buildings made of plastic, designed to look like a town. One of them is a "bank" and has the logo of one of our city's large banks over the door. When you step inside, an automated voice says something like, "Another day, another dollar!" and "The streets aren't paved with gold!"

Another building is a hair salon. Inside, plastered on the walls, is a poster showing different beauty products, identifiable by brand name. When you walk in, a speaker in the building makes a sound that might be a hair dryer, or maybe a toilet flushing. Outside, there is a fake ATM machine, and a train that makes speeding-up train noises. The windows on the upper floors of the buildings are barred.

There were children in the new playground, too, but they seemed to be staying as far away from these scary buildings as possible. They were clustered around the slides, which were off to one side, and in the sandbox. But even the sandbox wasn't simply a sandbox. Instead, there was a concrete dinosaur skeleton in it, which the kids were stepping on.

Besides being weird and frightening, what else is wrong with this playground? As my daughter pointed out, it treats the children like little consumers in the making, and it treats them as though they have no ability to play for themselves. The playground does all the imagining for them. My daughter explained, "What's the use of pretending you're digging for dinosaur bones if the bones are right there? Once you've found them, you're done."

I probably shouldn't dump on this one playground, because it's just one example of our culture's relentless attack on childhood. The vanguard of the anti-childhood offensive is the battalion of cartoons and kids' shows, available on cable 24-7. They make it nearly impossible for children to be bored (or to think up anything on their own.) School is the other main front in this war. "Seatwork" is becoming the norm in kindergarten. Recess is becoming an endangered species. More and more, the curriculum is structured around standardized tests, at younger and younger ages. There is less and less time or place for play.

But things aren't all that bleak. For one thing, the little kids weren't having anything to do with this new non-play playground. For another, the big kids (my daughter and her boyfriend) saw what was going on and were outraged.

We all ought to be.
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