I like listening to podcasts and interesting radio interviews. While I have a pretty poor memory and tend to forget the details, I’d like to think that what I hear makes its way into my synapses and adds to my general knowledge. It does mean that I tend to misquote people and claim as my own thoughts that should rightly be attributed to others, but at least there is no malice or intent there – simply age doing its thing to memory. And while Picasso is quoted as saying “Good artists copy, Great artists steal,” I’d like to think that my riffing on a theme I picked up elsewhere is more inspiration than duplication.

Recently I happened across an interview where national treasure and raconteur Jesse Mulligan interviewed Peter Gray, the Research Professor at Boston College Dept. of Psychology and Neuroscience. Gray spends his time researching children’s play and its impacts later in life. In particular, this interview was all about the link between a lack of independent play and mental health problems later in life.

Now I’m mindful that any opinion piece that differentiates between the way parenting happens today and the way it happened a generation or two ago runs the risk of sounding a bit like the grumpy musings of someone pining for a long-gone past. There is certainly an argument that every generation berates the way things are done these days. That said, there are a number of datapoints around the expectations of a new generation, their lack of mental and physical resilience, and a decreasing disconnection between consumption and an awareness of how the thing they’re consuming is made.

As pointed out in the interview, our children have less freedom now than they’ve had at any time since the seven-day-a-week child labour of the industrial age. What the interviewee was at pains to point out was that the freedom he was referring to was a very fundamental part of childhood in every generation before: the ability to play at will, to explore the world, to learn to assess risks and to self-determine within that play.

That old trope about previous generations of kids leaving the house at daybreak to go play with friends, only to return when daylight (or their hunger) got the better of them is, like all tropes, based in reality. The cliche about kids being happy with a few blocks of wood, a hammer and some old nails is a cliche, but one with a nugget of fact. As an aside, one of my oldest friends still joked about our then-toddler eldest son playing with a small pinecone inside an old peanut butter jar. Said friend sees that as a retrograde step, I suspect Gray would have approved.

Our kids today seem to be enrolled in a never-ending series of extra-curricular activities almost immediately post-partum. Worried as many parents are about their progeny’s academic futures, the world is awash with highly programmed education offerings generally delivered via digital platforms designed to capture children’s attention and direct it at educational attainment.

And while the parental aims here are laudable, we’ve inadvertently yet systematically removed the opportunities for our children to play or to engage in any activities independent of direct adult monitoring and control. That dramatic but apt term: helicopter parenting, really is a thing. As Gray said:

Children are more or less incarcerated at school, and at home they’re on house arrest because they’re not free to go out unless there’s an adult with them. But independent activity away from adults is extremely important for children. Adults inevitably interfere with children’s play. And even with the best adults, children don’t feel comfortable playing how they want to play.

And, again, at the risk of sounding like a Septuagenarian pining for a distant past, we’ve created some issues for this generation. Sure they have the freedom to order their brunch of choice (at which he drops the inevitable smashed avocado cliche). They have the freedom that comes from having a wider selection of inputs and a broader perspective on the world. But my observation, and the hypothesis from this interview is that they are lacking in some critical areas: creativity, self-direction and resilience.

And so the solution would seem to be self-evident. Importantly, it’s also cheap and easy. Just let kids play as, when and how they wish. Give them a few basic building blocks (cue pine cones and peanut butter jars) and you’ll be surprised what they can come up with.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

1 Comment
  • Sorry Ben, but your article on Israel would not let me post a comment’ Please transfer this comment to it.

    I too feel that Israel’s dealings with the Palestinians leaves much to be desired; yet they tried living with them as equal citizens years ago; only to be subject to continuous attack. They eventually booted them out to Gaza.

    *Personally I feel the Jews have a TRAGIC history, & the western Christian world did nothing to help them in the past either.

    Since the time Moses gave the Ten Commandments; the Jews have striven to throw out rule of might & install rule of right. Only to be rejected by everybody. When told thou shalt not take the name of God in vain; thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not rape; thou shalt not steal. Everyone replied look this is how we all live man; we kill our neighbors before they kill us; then under winner takes all we rape & plunder what we choose. So forget your Ten Commandments, take them up the street, as for not taking the name of your God in vain; tell him to go & get stuffed too!

    Yet the Jews persisted in trying to establish civilized law; & in the process made such a nuisance of themselves they became the enemies of most traditional rulers. As a product of doing their best; they were proclaimed to be a plague on the face of the earth; & permitted to live only in ghettos.

    As for the EU’s declaration of human rights; they are trying to build a perfect world on this earth; when any examination of population to resource ratios attests within the constraints of this biosphere we cannot have such.

    Personally I hold this declaration to be a well intended but fanciful delusion.

    Happy days all.

    We all have challenging decisions to make.

    Ken Maynard. ken.maynard7@gmail.com

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