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DOPES WITH A ROPE

Skipping is vanishing, along with other classic games. Big deal? It is.

CYNTHIA REYNOLDS November 6 2006
HOME

DOPES WITH A ROPE

Skipping is vanishing, along with other classic games. Big deal? It is.

CYNTHIA REYNOLDS November 6 2006

DOPES WITH A ROPE

HOME

Skipping is vanishing, along with other classic games. Big deal? It is.

CYNTHIA REYNOLDS

On a Saturday afternoon at a playground in Toronto, a little girl in pigtails was skipping rope. To be precise, she was stepping over the rope, rather than jumping it. She seemed ill at ease with the apparatus and she didn’t know any songs or rhymes. “We used to skip all the time,” her mother said, shaking her head. Tanya Rutledge, a teacher in St. Catharines, Ont., knows what she means. “Skipping doesn’t really happen anymore,” she says. “Double dutch—I haven’t seen that in the seven years I’ve been teaching.” It’s such a dinosaur that in the U.K. a group called Skipping Workshops has started up; it partners with schools to teach kids how to skip again.

But the issue isn’t just skipping. Many kinds of loose-parts play, which rely on manipulating simple props like blocks or silly putty, are vanishing. Pearl Marko, a recreational therapist and parent of two, was so concerned after witnessing kids just roaming the grounds at recess she founded Positive Playgrounds, an Edmonton-based national organization that teaches youth the forgotten games of kickball, marbles, freeze tag. A growing number of parents, teachers and business leaders think it’s important to address the loss of such games; they say our play deficit could affect our economic strength down the road.

The toys we give kids are feeding the problem. A shrinking toy industry, trying to compete with the monster DVD and gaming market, has shifted its focus from loose-parts playthings like building blocks or zoo animals to structured, often electronically sophisticated toys that can be used only in their one intended way. Today’s toys, says Diane Levin, professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston, usually tell kids exactly what tasks to perform. “I see kids poke at Play-Doh now and say ‘What does it do?’ ” says Levin, who was banned by Hasbro from its exhibit at the 2004 International Toy Fair after criticizing one of its McDonald’s restaurant toy kits—it came with moulds so kids could make only McDonald’s burgers, buns, fries and shakes. Even Lego has tweaked its strategy, concentrating less on basic blocks that call on kids to figure out how and what to make, and more on products with step-by-step instructions for building specific robots, aircraft and ships, such as the Star Wars Jabba’s Sail Barge, which sells for $119.99.

The result is a generation of kids who like to follow instructions. An Ottawa home-daycare provider who keeps a blog called “It’s Not All Mary Poppins,” notices that her preschoolers sit in her living room amid plenty of toys, and look to her to be told what to do. She’ll get the fun going, but as soon as she retreats, some of the kids just put down their toys and stop playing. She blames parental guilt in part. “We feel if we’re not stimulating and enriching our children all the time, that we’re neglecting them,” she says. “They’ve become addicted to being entertained.”

What many parents have forgotten is that that can kill creativity, says Dr. Bruce Perry, a renowned neuroscientist based in Canmore, Alta., and consultant to the province’s Ministry of Children’s Services. “When kids say, ‘I’m bored,’ ” he says, “if you let them stay there long enough, they will eventually become inventive in their thinking.” But wellintentioned adults replace boredom with active stimulation. The worst part is that kids all end up doing the same activities. “We are disrespecting a major biological strengthdiversity,” he says. “We’re educating our kids to be cognitively homogenous and raising people who are very good at being followers and employees. If there’s any shift in the economy, they will be ill-equipped to deal with it.” And ill-equipped for a global marketplace ruled by innovation, not the punch card.

Ironically, it’s those kids best positioned to take the economic reins who have it the worst. Psychologist Madeline Levine wrote her recent bestseller, Price of Privilege, after watching her practice fill up with affluent teens showing signs of depression and general unhappiness. Their parents can afford non-stop enrichment and entertainment— from private tutors and coaches to DVD players and Playstations in the cars—which means they get little time to daydream and few problems to solve on their own. Levine heard about a dad who had the children at his six-year-old’s treasure-hunt-themed birthday party carted from station to station in stretch Hummers. Eight years later, says Levine, kids like this are sitting in her office, empty, bored—not to mention boring—and bereft of basic life skills. “It’s a huge problem for society,” she says.

In class, Rutledge is flabbergasted by students. They want prizes for doing work, they’re puzzled why they should have to take notes when she could easily hand out photocopies. She sees every day why kids no longer skip. They’re too busy being entertained.

ONE GROUP HOLDS WORKSHOPS ON SKIPPING; ANOTHER TEACHES KIDS HOW TO PLAY KICKBALL