Our eight-year-old grandson recently wrote and illustrated a cute little story in which parents tell a boy playing a video game, to go outside and play. The punchline is that he continues to play the same game, only outdoors under a tree. My wife Diane and our daughter bought him a t-shirt that has a cartoon on it that portrays exactly the same gag. I suppose the point is that children don’t play outside very much and we can’t escape the pervasive nature of digital technology.
University of Michigan and Kaiser Foundation studies reveal that the average child spends over seven hours a day in front of electronic screens and less than 30 minutes playing outdoors.
According to Boston College’s Peter Gray, back in the 1950s, before iPhones, X-Boxes, Minecraft, 60 inch TVs, Adam Walsh, and advanced placements, children had two educations. One was traditional school and the other was “a hunter-gather education," in which children wandered about neighborhoods in mixed age groups engaged in “free play.” My friends and I played outdoors until dark nearly every day. On weekends and during the summer we played cowboys, roamed alleyways, played kick-the-can, and built things.
As an evolutionary psychologist, Gray believes that the hunter-gather education is the same schooling our ancestors employed for thousands of years. It allowed baby boomers to engage in hobbies, use tools, get in and out of trouble, read comics, daydream, visit libraries, and learn to negotiate social interactions. Gary claims that it was far more valuable to his adult life than regular school. He says that through free play, younger kids learned from older ones and are immersed in a stable, moral community. Free play is valuable, although I’m not sure it’s always particularly safe or wholesome.