The classic image of kids and city life is of reckless, unescorted children playing in the street. For better and for worse, youngsters on urban blocks used to play stick ball on the asphalt and hang around street corners, getting into trouble but getting into life as well.
As most people probably realize, that's generally not the case anymore, at least among middle class and up parents. As a Brooklyn dad myself, I can attest that city parenting these days often consists of arranging playdates and escorting your child to African dance, karate, soccer and swimming lessons — all geared to the Pre-K set. Just like in the suburbs, I suspect. What's lacking is unstructured play time with other children, with the big exception of playground time. The saving grace of New York City parenting and kid life are the playgrounds, because they do provide a place for children to bounce against one another without much direct parenting involvement. I love New York City playgrounds, and their virtues are worthy of a completely separate essay.
Still, there is a difference between a playground and a street corner. For one thing, playgrounds, with their single gate, always-latched entries and jungle gyms with rubber floors, have become cage-like and womb-like in their protectivity of children from both potential intruders and scraped knees. You have to look elsewhere for truly unstructured play.
As luck would have it, my wife and I live in a converted warehouse that has some low-income housing built across from it, fronting on a barren asphalt parking lot. There are children playing in this parking lot often, virtually all of them coming from the low-income housing. These kids, ages two to 15 or so, play in a self-governing universe, without parents. By design or default, unstructured play has become the domain of the less affluent.
Lately we've been throwing our four-and-a-half year old son Max into this universe, with delightful results. We are not yet willing to allow him to play unsupervised, so one of us tends to sit on a nearby bench, watching but not intruding. No other parents sit and watch, so we are usually the sole grown-up witness to the activity. What you see is the ability of kids still to play, without fancy equipment, without direction.
A few weeks ago he cadged a cardboard mailer from me, which a book had been delivered in. He and the kids converted it into a Frisbee-like devise, and amused themselves for a good hour and a half flinging it around. On another recent day a large cardboard box that we were throwing out became a crib for a pretend baby. While these things went on, other kids rode scooters and skateboards, and gossiped and ran. I think Max gets something crucial from this sort of play, an experience of freedom, and of handling of the world on his own. For now, this is a rare and valuable thing.
As these things go, I now see evidence everywhere of this play deficit. New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristof wrote recently how the radius of children's play has shrunk drastically since 1970. The Times also recently had an article about a street block in the Bronx that is closed to cars during the day and opened up as a "play street." I spotted an essay on a church bulletin board by Joan Almon called "The Fear of Play" that essentially explored the same theme. So I'm not the only one noticing.
I'm told that when urban kids get older, starting at age 10 or 11, they start traversing the city on their own, including using the buses and subways, to get to their friends' apartments, schools and other activities. But that's a long time to wait.
Each era confronts its own challenges, and ours are certainly easier in many respects than those of previous generations, when urban parents confronted the possibilities of polio or even malnutrition. But while acknowledging that, it would be good if this gift of play, unstructured and relatively little supervised, could be given to more children, of all ages and incomes.