Playing foul

Meher MarfatiaHere’s a sobering Teacher’s Day thought. For all the public rage against the tragic death of the Virar school victims — aren’t we guilty of slowly killing kids in dozens of different unthinking ways?

With force and fear, regimen and restriction, we keep making mechanical monkeys and remote robots of kids born to be free.

At the moment, a friend is mad about an appalling ruling to be passed in his building, by a bunch of bitter society members he calls unsporting and soulless. We’d like to heap more such adjectives on those dour beyond doubt denizens, for announcing a fine slapped on children daring to play on the central expanse of lawn they’ve been blessed with.

Where else except in these green spaces do children learn to master their fears, assert their needs, process their emotions and get along with others? The great outdoors open up sky-high possibilities. They expand the imagination, stimulate the senses and swell the spirit in ways that indoor activities, a clutter of classes and screen time can never. But interfering adults, on a whim, rob kids of natural chances at exploration, collaboration and invention. Instead of protecting playtime from the encroachments of a hyper wired world, families and teachers too often control and contort it.

Play is one of the most cost-effective investments every parent can make in a child’s education. Yet, playtime has continually dived over the decades. This grim slide since about 1955, mainly because adults have fettered kids, alarms Peter Gray, emeritus professor of psychology at Boston College. He sees unstructured play as a testing ground for life. It provides critical experiences without which children can’t grow into confident, competent adults. Ruing the ruin of lost play, Gray says, “It is hard to find groups of children outdoors and, if you do, they’re likely to be wearing uniforms and following the directions of coaches while parents dutifully watch.”

The tyranny doesn’t stop there. It stretches further, so even the games themselves are strategically selected by an adult cheering squad. It isn’t enough to boast about a child’s winning tennis stroke. Instead, switch to a squash racquet. Once again a compelled, programmed move turns energy from the outside in, from a great ground to a club court. Don’t you know, squash is the smart change you need to make ridiculously early (from junior school itself, we kid you not) to notch up more marks in the mad scramble for US university admissions.

Bye-bye sweet spontaneity, hello cold calculation. Dictated leisure lays no limits. Kids at any age will swear their favourite holiday spot is Goa, whose sun, sea and susegado they dig. Still, they’re willy-nilly whisked off to tonier me-too destinations they could find less interesting. Who really has fun? Of course the parents proudly putting up posts and pictures on Facebook pages in a grand staged show of been there-done that.

To get back to the spoilsports who want to ban young feet from hitting their garden grass... It wasn’t that long ago when you and I romped through rounds of Chor Police and Chain Cook, if you remember. Let’s be less quick to stop history repeating itself.
Meher Marfatia is the author of 10 books for children and two for parents. She has mothered her own kids well past the terrible twos and almost past the troubled teens. Reach her at:

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