My granddaughters’ calendars are such that, at times, I feel as if I need to make an appointment to enjoy their company. Their commitments require the organizational skills of experienced social secretaries.
I’m serious. My girls, my loves, have homework projects, and lessons, and practices, and tutoring, and recitals, and playdates.
Oh, playdates. These days it’s all about the playdates. They’ve become the networking scene for the elementary school set, and this clueless abuela is trying to figure out why.
I suppose playdates existed a generation ago, when I was raising my own kids, but surely they were not as widespread, as de rigueur as they are now. For better or worse, my children had each other and, in a pinch, classmates lived nearby. Bikes and skateboards were a handy form of transportation and, when needed, Mom’s van could be used on longer recruiting trips.
For years the front lawn of my house remained patchy and brown, scarred by my kids’ kickball games. It didn’t grow back until the youngest two were in high school, when their interest turned to video games, football and (to a lesser degree) schoolwork. Only later, as I recovered all forms of equipment from bushes — a deflated soccer ball, a leather glove, a plastic bat, countless unpaired socks — did I realize the influence such free-form sessions had on the young adults they had become.
Is that kind of casual play still around? Do unsanctioned, unofficial arrangements for hide-and-seek still occur?
My observations — admittedly, as a curmudgeonly outsider — reveal this: Play has been formalized, made into a proper production that involves way too much parental input and almost no spontaneity on the part of the child. Play is scheduled, prescribed, reserved for particular dates and times, not unlike birthday parties. Venues have become important, too, and while a backyard or pool would seem ideal in sunny South Florida, I’ve heard of playdates at restaurants, malls and those incredibly loud, usually expensive parlors with electronic games and laser tag rooms.
The move from free play to coordinated diversion has been a slow evolution, the result of many societal influences, from helicopter parenting to smaller families to working mothers. And if this sounds like a lament for the loss of play, the unstructured, unconstrained kind with no hovering parents or planned craft project, so be it. We should bemoan the passing away (or the slow death) of an endeavor that teaches children to be independent, to be social, to find solutions, to make friends, to get along, to invent and imagine, to struggle and survive. In short, free play teaches kids how to make their way in society.
When educator Maria Montessori famously said, “Play is the work of the child,” or when genius Albert Einstein noted, “Play is the highest form of research,” I’m quite sure neither was referring to regimented playdates, where every single detail is mediated by adults. They certainly didn’t have in mind MomCo,, that app that lets moms search for suitable play matches via smartphones, either.
But, OK, playdates are the new world, as much a part of childhood reality as fusion cuisine, Facebook and texting are part of mine. I get it. But here’s a request from a veteran with hindsight and perspective: Allow kids the luxury of imagination, of conflict and compromise, of success and rejection. Encourage them to explore, to wear out their front lawns.
And pencil in a visit from a doting granny, please.