What Ever Happened To Play?

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Rachel Witt is all smiles as she hops through the gunny sack race

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One place kids keep rushing to is Chuck E. Cheese, the chain of video gamecrammed pizzerias where families can frolic in air-conditioned safety, separated by turnstiles from the Big Bad Wolf. Such enterprises fill the play vacuum with something far more modern and secure — "edutainment." It's a growing industry. Randy White is ceo of White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group in Kansas City, Mo. His company develops cavernous play facilities, up to 30,000 sq. ft. in area, that are Xanadus of prefabricated diversion, offering art projects, costumes, blocks and even simulated fishing. "We're reintroducing free play to families," says White. Free play at a price, that is. His facilities charge up to $10 a head. "Parents feel that if they're not paying much for an experience, it's not worth it educationally," he says.

When young fun has to prove itself in educational terms — when it's not sufficient that play be just playful — the world has reached a dreary spot. Yet here we are. Consider this: since the 1980s, with the rise of the academic-standards movement, hundreds of American elementary schools have eliminated recess. The Atlanta schools have dropped recess system-wide, and other districts are thinking of following suit. Does a no-recess day raise test scores or aid kids' mental performance? There's no evidence for it. There is plenty of evidence, however, that unbroken classwork drives children slightly batty, as Atlanta teachers are starting to note. Multiple studies show that when recess time is delayed, elementary-school kids grow increasingly inattentive. Goodbye recess, hello Ritalin.

Rebecca Lamphere, 25, of Virginia Beach, Va., is a play activist, to coin an awkward phrase. Her mission began three years ago after she noticed that the school playground adjacent to her house was always empty. School officials later instituted a "recess substitute" program called Walk 'n Talk that involved having children circle four orange cones set up on the grounds after lunchtime. "It was considered social time," Lamphere says, "but they all had to go in one direction and keep their voices down." Lamphere wasn't pleased — her daughter Charleen was about to start kindergarten — so she launched a protest. She circulated a petition, sought out experts in child development and ultimately attracted statewide attention. Last April, Virginia Beach mandated daily recess, and the state followed five months later.

Is that what we've come to — obligatory play? The defenders of unfettered recreation have a way of making it sound like broccoli, wholesome and vitamin packed but unenticing. "Kids need to learn how to navigate themselves and keep their bodies safe," says Richard Cohen, a child-development expert and play-programs manager at Brookfield Zoo outside Chicago. What fun! At their grimmest, the play scholars sound like Stuart Brown recounting a study of Texas prison inmates that found a common element in their childhoods. "They didn't engage in rough-and-tumble play," he says, offering anxious parents yet one more reason to live in mortal fear of almost everything.

Fear — the natural enemy of play. The fear that a French lesson missed is a Yale acceptance letter lost. The fear that sending junior outside to roam will end in reporting him missing to the police. Do we now have to add to these fears — some of them neurotic, others real — the fear that "play deprivation" will stunt kids' spirits, shrink their brains and even land them in jail? Such protective obsessing seems to be the problem, and doing more of it offers no solution. Parents should probably just tell kids that fooling around is bad for them, open the door and follow them outside. All work and no play can make adults dull too — sometimes even a little paranoid.

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