Blog Articles and Resources
A Pause That May Refresh Childhood
by Peter Gray, Ph.D.
A PANDEMIC IS a terrible thing, but it never hurts to look for silver linings. I have written for years about the harm created by our overscheduling of children’s lives. Over decades, we have increased the time that children must spend in school and on their schoolwork at home, while at the same time replacing out-of-school free play with ever more adult-directed activities. The consequences have included gradual but dramatic increases in anxiety, depression, and suicide among school-age children, as well as a decline in their sense of control over their own lives, as has been documented by much research, including my own.
Then, along came the coronavirus, which closed the schools and canceled the after-school activities that have kept children so busy. Suddenly today’s children acquired what children had decades ago—free time in which to get bored, daydream, play, discover and pursue hobbies, figure out for themselves what to do, and think about the meaning of life (children can be great philosophers).
Families are still adjusting to quarantine and trying to figure out how to deal with so much together-time at home. But I have already heard some very encouraging stories from parents and children. I have heard about kids picking up musical instruments they have long wanted time to play, painting pictures for the first time in years, riding bicycles, discovering nature in the dirt and trees of their own yards, voluntarily cooking family meals with great pride, reading for their own enjoyment and interest rather than for homework, and on and on. I have also heard from families who are reading aloud together, playing games, and discovering the pleasures of just being together with no place to go and not much needing to be done. All of this is real education, and it had been sorely missing from children’s lives. I have also heard from at least one child psychologist who has said that, since schools closed, she has seen a sharp reduction in anxiety among her clients.
I don’t want to mislead anyone: Many children and families are suffering, whether cooped up with people who don’t get along well, feeling the crush of poverty in a collapsed economy, or deprived of the opportunity to gather physically with friends. But in our recognition of the negative, let us not deny the potential positives.
My fervent hope is that this pause in the busyness that we have imposed on children will lead us, as individuals and a society, to gain a renewed recognition of what childhood is all about. Children are designed to play and explore in their own chosen ways. That’s how they learn to take initiative, be creative, and solve their own problems. In short, it’s how they learn to become adults. When we deprive children of such opportunities by constantly directing them, we prevent them from developing the self-confidence required to face the world. That is why today’s children and young adults were exhibiting record levels of depression and anxiety, even before the pandemic arrived.
There is also a lesson to be learned about schooling: As a society, we have gone nearly berserk in our obsession about test scores and what we call “academic achievement,” which has very little to do with actual intellectual development. Children spend much more time at school and on homework than in the past, but they are not learning more. They are, however, burning out earlier. They are learning how to cram for tests, but that doesn’t equate to real education in any meaningful way. One thing I believe that parents will take away from their children’s missing a few months of school is that it didn’t much matter. They will not be behind. The truth is that very little is learned and remembered in a few months of school. What children learn outside of the classroom tends to be much more valuable.
I’m hoping that this pause will help us realize that policies that make children unhappy are cruel and need to be changed. Children need much more free time for play and self-directed pursuits, in school and after school, than we have allowed them. They learn best when they are happy and have some say in what they are taught. And their happiness should be the number-one priority of parents and school personnel. Their real education depends on it.
I write articles based on my experience as a therapist or a training or conference attendee. Many of these articles are written by others who are experts in their field and I share their information as resources for others.