The memories of my childhood that I cherish most are of the Huck Finnish days of summer when school was finally out. One time, I made a rough fishing rod out of a bamboo pole and some twine. There was something deeply satisfying about the process of creating the makeshift rod, attaching the hook and sinker, raiding our refrigerator for something to use as bait, and putting the line into the water. Then I fished for hours in the creek near our house, watching the sun play on the water and the tadpoles dart around in shallow green pools. That day I caught a couple of fish, but the fish themselves didn't matter much. It was the process of creating that meant everything to me.
In unstructured play, the child creates a world. Along with the bits and scraps of materials she collects, the child invests makes this world with her thoughts, imaginings, and feelings. The world she creates in free form is literally made out of herself, spun out of her own subjectivity. This world, in turn, gives the child a sense of her self as an active, creative being. The child is the ruler of her tiny kingdom, and in it she feels deliciously free and alive.
When a child is deprived of the opportunity for free creative play, the child can become depressed. The eminent psychologist Alice Miller says that when a parent tells the child to do something sensible and goal-oriented instead of aimlessly playing, the child's world is overthrown. The child obeys because she wants to please her parent, and puts aside her own feelings. If this parental banishment occurs repeatedly, as it does with a narcissistic parent who uses the child to satisfy her own conscious or unconscious wishes, the child withdraws her hurt feelings into herself and becomes depressed. Instead of having a sense of herself as a free and creative subjectivity, the child feels like an object -- the object of her parent's wishes. No longer the author of her own story, the child feels like she is merely playing a role in a screenplay her parents have written for her. As Miller puts it, the child puts away her real feelings and takes on a "false self." Later on, in the therapist's office, she confides that she feels like an actor on a stage.
Today, childhood depression is on the rise in America. More than a million children have been diagnosed with depression and are treated with dangerous psychiatric medications. Alongside this rise in children's depression is an alarming decrease of opportunities for free unstructured play. More and more, children are tiger parented into academic achievement at the expense of having creative experiences. This begins even in the preschool years when the race is on to enroll one's child in the best college preparatory nursery school that will provide him with academics at the age of three.
Older children are over-scheduled with enrichment classes, music lessons and sports -- all of which will look good on a college application later on. "How long has junior been playing the violin?" asks the application, for colleges are looking for "stick-to-it-iveness." the limited play time that children are allowed is often taken up with video and computer games -- games that have been invented by adults. There is some social interaction on these games, as children connect with their friends on the screen, but video games do not provide a child with a truly creative experience. For one thing, there is always the competition, the quest for victory.
The lack of opportunity for unstructured creative play is a tragic loss for our country's children. Along with family and social stresses, it certainly contributes to the astonishingly rapid rise of childhood depression. The achievement-oriented, over-scheduled, video game-intoxicated child misses out on the opportunity to create his own imaginary world. Although every child feels good when he is successful at academics or sports, this feeling is not an adequate substitute for the sense of self the child gains in the creative process of playing.
The absence of creative play and the growing emphasis on achievement narrowly defined is stressful to our children, because it frustrates and denies their instinctive need to form a sense of self through play. There are grave consequences for our society as well, for the loss of free play as a child results in both a loss of creativity and depression when the child becomes an adult.
Psychoanalyst and pediatrician Donald Winnicott says that the ability to play, to engage in a truly creative process, is more than anything else what makes life worth living. Without the ability to participate in this area of experience, a person can easily become depressed. And, according to Winnicott, what allows an adult to engage in the meaningful process of creativity is having had creative playing experiences as a young child.
The choice between playing and academics is not an either/or decision. Of course parents should continue to encourage their children to do well at school. The emphasis, however, especially for younger children, should be on striking a healthy balance, and not underestimating the importance of the play experience in the child's developing sense of self and her emotional well-being in the future.