The Eaters of Childhood

“The Eaters of Childhood” is the working title of a body of work I’m developing about the institutions, individuals, and influences that seek to deny our children their childhood, as many of us understand the term and experienced it in our own youth. The majority themes focus on the lack of unstructured play time, the lack of time spent in nature, the push to eliminate all risk in play, and the forces that seek to turn our children into adults at the age of 6. This is a set of themes that fit well with the Free the Commons philosophy; as I’ll illustrate during my writing on this topic, we are raising children today in a manner totally disconnected from nature: the result will be a future voting populace even less concerned about environmental issues than today’s voters.

With that introduction, I want to offer as the first installment of this body of work an editorial in today’s Bloomberg online written by Peter Orszag, a one-time Obama administration official and presently a vice chairman at Citigroup, Inc. Mr. Orszag writes today to inform us that summer break is making our children “dumber and fatter.” These our his words, based on a few studies that show kids lose some degree of the education and skills that they gained over the school year during their summer break, and also tend to return to school somewhat heavier than when they left. Mr. Orszag’s response is to extend the school year.

Mr. Orszag’s response is typical of the self-titled intellectual leaders and pundit class that guide American policy today: their first response, always, is more government. There is no problem too large or small that more government cannot solve.

Now, I’m not on an anti-government rant here. I’m on an anti-government-needs-to-save-our-children rant. What ails our children isn’t a lack of government in their lives – government schools, government sports leagues, government after school activities, government summer programs. No, what ails our children is a lack of free time, and the ability and permission to make their own unhindered use of that free time.

Study upon study has demonstrated the need to provide children with unstructured play time: and by unstructured I mean no rules, no umpires,  no coaches, no hovering parents, nothing but space and imagination and friends. This kind of play, written so eloquently about by Richard Louv in his work “The Last Child in the Woods” is critical to the development of healthy, balanced, intelligent, and confident children. Unstructured play time is the key to fostering innovative behavior, creative and abstract thinking, self-learning and self-awareness, sound judgment, and a healthy body.

But we seem not to be aware of the importance of play today. Here’s a report that discusses what we’ve done to our children’s free time and play time: Since the late 1970’s, children have lost around 12 hours per week of free time, we’re forcing them into more and more structured sports, and we’re loading them up with homework and extending school hours while cutting physical education and recess. It’s not surprising children are growing more stressed and showing signs of burn-out typical of mid-life adults who’ve been stuck behind the desk for too long.

The last thing we need, all due respect to Mr. Orszag, is more hours in school, where we turn our children into good little foot-soldiers for corporate or bureaucratic life: follow the rules, listen to authority, respect and understand your place in the hierarchy.

No Mr. Orszag. Children do not need more school, more hours sitting behind a desk listening to authority. Children need open fields, rocks and trees, fluffy clouds and earthworms, dirt and streams, sticks and tree forts, and hours upon hours without parents and authority hovering about in which they can make up rules to games, invent worlds, meet friends, run around unhindered, and scrape up their precious little knees.

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