Baltimore fails its children

Continual threats to cut funding for swimming pools and rec centers demonstrate a failure to appreciate the importance of play

November 06, 2011|By Alexander E. Hooke

Play is like education of the body, character or mind … The further removed play is from reality, the greater its educational value. For it does not teach facts, but rather develops aptitudes. — Roger Caillois

Baltimore City officials are poor-mouthing again over the issue of play areas for children. When the weather becomes hot, they try to close or cut the hours of swimming pools. With colder and shorter days approaching, they threaten to shut down numerous neighborhood recreation centers.

How strange that these officials can easily find the resources and tax breaks to support "play areas" for wealthy adults. When the Ravens or Orioles are at home, the city makes sure the police get their overtime pay to monitor the fans and traffic. To procure professional race car drivers for a Grand Prix play date, Baltimore officials are suddenly ingenious in obtaining monies for development, promotion and rebuilding downtrodden roads.

Where else is this oddity found besides Baltimore? Well, lots of places. Urban life, for the last three decades or longer, has seen a steady erosion of fertile space for children to play. This fact should not be attributed to lack of funds. It reflects a deliberate degradation by adults of the importance of play in a child's life.

Play is essential for children. It marks their first taste of freedom — and it is fun. They reach an important step in autonomy by leaving home voluntarily, negotiating directions and constraints with friends and strangers, and addressing their own mistakes. Play also introduces unexpected suspense and danger. It thus pushes children to learn about awkward spots, true friends and unruly adversaries — as well as the tensions within their own desires, interests and loyalties.

Most importantly, children at play are generally free from adults. Without the rules, evaluations and supervision of parents, teachers and other authorities, children learn to deal with one another. They learn to coordinate, compromise or compete by their own imagination and wits.

A city's mayor and officials, and the adults who voted them into office, support or condone the degradation of play in urban life by the ritualistic threat to shut down pools or youth centers. If commuters demand easier access, then cities build more roads, garages and rails — deadly barriers for a child's independent mobility. The city goes out of its way to accommodate wealthy patrons who want special attention for their adult fun. But when neighborhood organizers offer their services to sustain local youth centers, as the case in the recent controversies over DeWees and Hampden, their efforts are upended with bureaucratic details.

Children have instead been offered two main alternatives. One, parents register them for continuous little leagues, clinics and tournaments in one or more sports. This can be expensive and is still largely supervised by adults. Two, parents and corporations entice them with video games so they can sit before their electronic shadows and twiddle their thumbs all afternoon. Upon mastering a game, they head for the nearest Game Stop to buy their next challenge, only to return to the sedentary indoors.

Compared to light rail lines, stadiums and Inner Harbor spectacles, swimming pools, well-kept parks and indoor youth centers are relatively inexpensive public places. They provide space for children to develop their own games while anticipating risky adventures and make-believe dramas.

French sociologist Roger Caillois contends that play encourages children to briefly shape their own reality as a break from the reality imposed by parents and schools. This break should neither be devalued as frivolous nor demeaned, according to an old adage, as "a tool in the devil's workshop." It is a distinct reality that constitutes an essential part of a child's education.

Urban officials are unlikely to curtail their support for play dates among the wealthy. Earmarking a percentage of the profits for public education has been an ongoing promise and marketing ploy. But if they and voters are serious about the well-being of their children, they can support earmarking a percentage of profits not only for schools, but for the other half of a child's education — play.

Alexander E. Hooke is a professor of philosophy at Stevenson University. His email is ahooke@stevenson.edu.

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