MTC Blog

The sign says "Don't Play"...

Last weekend was the first really nice weekend of Spring here in Maine. Not warm, but certainly not freezing. A great weekend to walk down to the town pier and beach with the kid and the dog, see what the local fishermen were up to, play around the rocks, let the dog swim and chase her frisbee (the kid ended up going for an unexpected swim, sometimes we all misjudge just how far away the next rock is…). It was lovely, we are so lucky to live here.


beach sign-1Then I saw the sign in the photo above. “PRIVATE BEACH. NO ACCESS”. It is repeated twice in the span of 30’, in all caps (so you know they’re serious, or a little unhinged…), and on a brand-new fence. Now the interesting thing is not the fence per se, which fences off a 10x30 section of sand, with no obvious access to that sand – though that is head scratching. The interesting, and distressing thing is the sign itself, the signal it sends, and the audience for that signal. I was interested in the signal it sent to one person, my son. He’s 8. And the beach he’s run around on, swum from, dug holes in countless times over the last 5 years was now posted with signs telling him that this was NO LONGER ALLOWED. Legality of whether the property owner can do this aside, it got me thinking about the morality of this approach to a space that has been used and appreciated as community space for generations, and our shared responsibilities to the kids in our communities.

There are a few trends or pieces of info that pop into my mind when I consider this - 

- A newly released report by Maine Childrens Alliance "Maine Kids Count" shows that just one third (34.3%) of 6-11 year olds engaged in vigorous physical play every day in 2018.  Less than one quarter of kids aged 12-17 (23.3%) did so.  An overwhelming majority of kids in Maine were not engaging in vigorous physical activity - either sports or play, on a daily basis.  The really scary part?  Maine is better than the national average.  Only 27.9% of 6-11 year olds and 18.2% of 12-17 year olds nationally were physical active.  

- The wildly popular trend of older people (who own property by the way) complaining about young people, aka "kids these days" (who don't own property) – not going outside enough, spending too much time online, not participating in youth sports enough, not hanging out with friends enough, spending too much time hanging out online, gaining weight from being inside too much and blah blah blah.  We also hear constant stories about how these young people are not properly prepared to enter the workforce, or to deal with the realities of daily life.  It should be pointed out that every generation says essentially the same things about those that come after.  Some distressing trends in mental health outcomes hint to some elements of truth underneath the hyperbole. 

- The final data point that I think about when I see this sign is the shrinking of what developmental psychologists like Peter Gray or Richard Louv would call “radius of play", or "radius of activity”. This is defined as the area around home within which a child is free to roam. Since 1971 this radius has shrunk by over 90% for all children, for some it has disappeared entirely. Louv identifies multiple factors for this shrinking – parental fears (stoked by media reports of rare abductions), increasing attractiveness of indoor entertainment, and a loss of playmates in the outdoors (driven by increased scheduling of out of school time as well as the aforementioned parental fears and indoor attractions). But one of the biggest factors is what author & anthropologist Jay Griffith refers to as “the loss of the commons” (I thoroughly recommend her book A Country Called Childhood). The open and accessible spaces that children have always had access to, have always been attracted to because they were where the adults weren’t, were they could make their own rules, where things could be broken and put back together and broken again. The habitat of childhood play.

We know what happens when habitats are threatened or destroyed. Endangerment or extinction.

Why are we shocked then when the loss of the habitats of childhood, and play - being built over, signed off, fenced around - correlates to a loss of play, to a degradation of childhood? Why do we, as adults in our wider community, not make the connection between our placing of signs or putting up fences, to the numerous complaints we simultaneously make about our youth? 

(But how do we know this is happening?  Well, luckily, there are quite a few researchers and non-profits who have started tracking rates of play and activity among children, recognizing the severe threat this loss poses.  For the interested reader, I thoroughly recommend a few books on the subject - Richard Louv's "Last Child in the Woods" or "The Nature Principle", Peter Gray's "Free to Learn", or Jay Griffith's "A Country Called Childhood: Children & the Exuberant World" (published in the UK under the title "Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape".  These authors take a large and diverse range of academic fields and make them accessible to the non-academic reader).

There are bigger issues at play here (pun intended). Childhood play and ability to be outdoors has been implicated in all sorts of pro-social outcomes. Kids who play are physically healthier, happier, more productive in school and later career. These factors, or their opposite as the case may be (so kids who don’t get to play may be less happy, or less healthy) all have economic implications, known as spillovers or externalities. As the name implies, an externality happens to someone else. The landowner who fences off their 300 square feet of sand, and the next one, and the next one, don’t feel the impact. But society does.

If we, as a society, are interested in raising subsequent generations to be their most effective, happiest and most ready to enter the workforce as creative, productive adults, we need to be aware of the consequences of our collective actions. We need to find ways to encourage outdoor play, not close it off further. We need to be aware of the signs we post, the signals they send, and how those signals are received.

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