I should forewarn you, this is one of my long ones!
In my recollection, other stage in life allows one to take things for granted like childhood Or so we thought!
As children, we did not worry so much about a thing, and had the luxury of not carrying anybody’s troubles on our shoulders. Unless of course one internalized the disfunction in own home, between parents or nosy neighbors. Still we cared less, provided we lived right by our parents, our family and our communities.
I am not claiming that childhood was free of complications, wants or shortcoming. But we did not discomfort ourselves with worries about what we lacked, in comparison to our neighbors. In most cases, many children my age and social circles saw themselves relative to their siblings, not really their neighbors. Even that did not preoccupy our happiness.
As kids, we giggled at anything, even while wailing tears of pain. If you did not have food, our neighbors had food, which we shamelessly invaded for our lunch meals. Then playtime followed, with neighbors and our siblings followed, once the elders ok-ed.
At home, you could off to play, once you had done all your assigned chores. At home we had a rotational roster listing daily chores shared among siblings — washing dishes, cleaning the house, sweeping the yard, tending to the animals/pets, cooking meals and setting the dinning table. Being among the last born children in the family, my main chore was washing dishes from breakfast, lunch and dinner, with my brother.
After breakfast, we washed the dishes, then ran off to play with our friends; my brother with the boys, and I with my girlfriends. At lunchtime, we ran back home, ate, washed dishes and off to play again till the evening.
In the evening, we retired home, helped feed the animals and closed the animal house(s), took a bath, and waited around for dinner, giggling to each other as siblings. Then went off to bed after dinner, and the routine continued the next morning.
Within our family, we played with every relative, a term I am using in its broad meaning, to include everyone beyond the biological children of our mother and father, such as blood cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents and close family friends.
We played endlessly, once we had fulfilled our childhood obligation(s) of respect, care and concern for one another. We shared many childhood memories, visiting each other over the weekends and school holidays, playing from dusk to dawn, sharing tales and legends and make-believe stories.
Within our community, we were obliged to preserve the good “name” or reputation of our parents: being kind to one another; respectful to elders; and helpful to the community. We were expected to greet our neighbors and anybody we came into contact within the community, help out the aged and show discipline. We played freely with the neighbor’s children, had free entry and exit to gated communities, as long as we showed proper behavior.
Play is something we did, without subjecting it to intellectual debate or framed as a “Right”.
The first time I heard about the “Right to Play” was from a graduate school classmate. She had spent sometime prior to grad school enrollment working with a project called “Right to Play” for children in refugee camps of Western Tanzania.
A part of me was astounded that, perhaps the human rights movement is going overboard into coining work for themselves. But being familiar with western/white humanitarian agencies, I knew anything was possible; they can come up with anything in the name of “humanitarianism”.
Now more than ever, the Right to Play is becoming real, increasingly infringed upon in the name of “modernity”, “advancement”, and “globalization”, all with a key symbols of that holy grain “Capitalism”. Specifically, “Western form of capitalism”, which dictates that we should compete, we should excel over and above others.
Capitalism preaches that the sky, and now the moon, and beyond is the limit. We are more than our sum total. T.I. said, “You can be whatever you like, you like. You can go wherever you like, you like.” But the painful cost is often glossed over.
As a parent, one learns that play is not guaranteed to my child when capitalism calls. When attention has to be split toward intensive academic requirements, the world of work outside parenting or the ever changing rules and relationships with families, neighbors and communities.
School-going children come home with plenty of homework throughout the week, which takes up a big chunk of their after-school hours. By the time they are done, little time is left before dinner and bedtime. So, play is often shelved or negotiated rushed into and at dinner
Instead, play is now purchased in after-school activities, to give children some physical activity, most importantly to make them multifaceted and multi-skilled outside of academics.
It is very parent’s dream to have successful and competent and marketable children, for an easier and successful future. We want them to have alternatives career paths and passions, if they don’t end up intrigued by academics. We also hope that through the paid after-school activities, they would meet new friends and potential playmates.
Not all children have a chance to attend after-school programs, either because their parents are busy making money or they do not have the money to afford paid programs. Some parents on the “six figure paper-chase” sacrifice family time with the children, often away from home for most hours of the day, and nights, sometimes.
More children are now raised by child minders, nannies or in daycare with limited hours and space to play freely. Some crèches are open 24 hours, providing opportunities to take longer hours at work and less raising their children. Where playtime is provided at crèches, it is often “structured play” run on a time basis, or assisted play using electronics, that undermines their creativity playing at own initiative. Children spend more time sitting on the couch, watching TV, and less engagement in physical activity
Even schools, as the institutions of socializing and grooming childhood outside the home are reducing playtime, with the disproportionate demand to complete the school curriculum.
The introduction of the Common Core, has increased pressure on teachers to focus less on creative teaching, more on preparing their students to pass the PSSAs. Teachers are frustrated that they are increasingly using less of their imagination in their classrooms, instead following the set scripts. The new demands for “Common Core learning” have come with less playtime for our school children, as more time is spent on academics than play while in school.
“Recess”, a terminology I understand is becoming “politically incorrect”, now lasts no more than 20 minutes. The rest of the time at school is spent indoors, hushing up on learning! Yes, the academic syllabi previously taught to third graders are making their way as early as kindergarten.
Even in my own native “Pearl of Africa”, children are no longer playing freely as we did growing up. Left with nannies, they watch TV all day, or enclosed in gated communities without free access to their neighbors. Playdate now has to be requested and scheduled, or meet at the play-park, which often charge user fees.
For single parents, with one child, you are lucky, if there is an age-mate in the neighborhood, kind enough to allow for a playdate. Or get ready to become your child’s playmate. This was not my life growing up, with unlimited playmates, unscheduled playdates and free parks and open grassland to play till you dropped!
Hopefully, and there seems to be a glimmer of hope that post-modernity is recognizing the value of prioritizing free play for kids, and creating public spaces for kids to play freely and be kids.
Public parks are cropping up in suburbs and cities. In the suburbs I have lived, kids tend to make instant friends on the playground, chasing each other around without limited control by their parents. Not so much at city play parks I have been to, where kids tend to keep to their siblings or friends, under the watchful deterrence eye of their parents.
Hopefully, the new playgrounds will also loosen up parents, less paranoia, and usher back the innocence accorded to children, letting their kids play with ‘little strangers’ freely and hard! Hopefully, kids will be able to play as children, nice and easy.