Kathy Fleming took her place behind a podium at the Sacramento City Library Saturday and got a crowd of more than 200 people riled up about playtime - although there wasn’t a child in sight.
“Are you ready to play?” the Fairytale Town director asked her audience.
“Yeah!” they yelled back, filling the library’s cavernous galleria with their enthusiasm.
These were parents, teachers and newly coined “play advocates,” who had gathered for the fourth annual Sacramento Play Summit, a one-day, child-free conference exploring the benefits of more playtime in everyday life.
Sponsored by the library, the nonprofit group Fairytale Town and Sutter Health, the event addressed the steady disappearance of sporadic, child-driven play in American life as academics have gotten tougher, technology has become more pervasive and parents have grown more fearful about letting their children out into the crime-ridden world they see in the news.
Compared to the 1970s, children now spend 50 percent less time in unstructured outdoor activities, according to the Alliance for Childhood, a nonprofit youth health collaborative. Advocates believe that unstructured play, rather than adult-driven activities such as organized sports, inspires creativity and teaches children vital skills such as getting along with others, finding solutions to problems and mediating conflict.
Sacramento Public Health Officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye, who gave a keynote speech Saturday, said the increasingly competitive college admissions process encourages kids to overachieve to an unhealthy degree.
“From the moment they wake up, their whole life is planned,” she said. “They have piano, they have golf, they have basketball, swimming and on top of that they have time to start a club to help the homeless. … Are we just building children who have a lot of stress and no time for play?”
Fairytale Town, which runs the popular Land Park play space, recently opened an adventure playground in South Sacramento - a free, supervised area where children can paint on the walls, build with hammers and nails, erect cardboard forts or just play in the mud. More popular in Europe than in the U.S., adventure playgrounds are a nod to eras past, when kids played around their neighborhoods.
Now most children play in their own backyards and hardly ever go anywhere unsupervised, said Lenore Skenazy, author of the controversial book “Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry).” Skenazy was labeled the “world’s worst mom” on social media nine years ago when she let her fourth grade son, now in college, ride the New York City subway alone. Now, she urges parents, through her blog and self-designed school program, to fight the instinct to supervise every second of their children’s lives.
She attended Saturday’s summit to talk about the dangers of overprotective parenting and the need for play.
“Children are not in constant danger,” Skenazy said. “Parents and society who think that children are in danger every time they leave the house, can’t let them leave the house. ... It’s in free time, playing time, that kids figure out what they’re really interested in and how to get along with each other. ... These are all the skills that you need to deal with other kids and even to do well in school. We think taking playtime and replacing it with academic time is going to make our children smarter and better, but actually playtime makes your kid smarter and better.”
Deborah Doss, a Folsom mom and Montessori school instructor who attended the Saturday conference, said she constantly struggles to find a balance between letting her children play and keeping them safe.
Recently her 14-year-old daughter asked for permission to ride her bicycle around the neighborhood alone for the first time. While Doss frequently did the same thing during her own childhood, the thought of Jouelle out on her own panicked her, she said. She eventually sat the child down to go over safety rules before letting her take the ride.
“I was so stressed out because of all the sex trafficking going on,” Doss said. “I made her bring her cell phone, I told her the neighbors to go to if something happened. I was freaking out, I couldn’t believe it. But I’ve been conditioned. There’s this culture of fear, and it’s so easy to get sucked into it. I’m going through a metamorphosis now. We need to set healthy boundaries so our children can enjoy their lives.”