Recently, an article in Nautilus magazine touted the benefits of play. Authors Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross conclude, “Play … is universal to our species, and when humans play, it positively influences both their cognitive development and their emotional well-being.” This is particularly important for developing what experts call “the 6 C’s”: collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation, and confidence.
But today’s kids aren’t playing. Instead, the generation of human beings with more leisure time than at any other moment in history is spending it on screens.
Media theorist Andrey Mir offered this blunt conclusion in The City Journal: “Screen time is stolen time,” describing what a day in the life of a kid looks like:
Screen time reaches two hours and 45 minutes between the ages of two and eight, four hours and 45 minutes between the ages of eight and 12, and an astonishing seven hours and 15 minutes between the ages of 13 and 18. That represents 20 percent, 32 percent, and 45 percent of kids’ waking time, respectively.
Even worse, Mir continues, “[F]amilies and schools have become the main source of the digital pollution of childhood.”
This digital pollution has had significant consequences for education. According to French neuroscientist Michel Desmurget, students who learn to write on a computer have a harder time recognizing letters than those who learn with pencil and paper. Though many educators tout the benefits of technology in the classroom, others note that it hurts concentration, a central component to both play and learning.
Screens have also contributed heavily to today’s mental health crisis among young people, as well as to what sociologist Jonathan Haidt has called “the loss of a ‘play-based childhood.’” Haidt points to Boston College psychologist Peter Gray, who has argued for the significance of play:
Free play is the means by which children learn to make friends, overcome their fears, solve their own problems and generally take control of their own lives. … Nothing we do, no amount of toys we buy or “quality time” or special training we give our children, can compensate for the freedom we take away. The things that children learn through their own initiatives, in free play, cannot be taught in other ways.
Ironically, many parents have taken away the freedom children should have to play with peers and interact with the natural world, out of a fear for their safety. This while providing nearly limitless freedom on digital devices. In that world, mistakes are fixed with a reset, and disputes with friends and neighbors can be largely avoided. Thus, many students buckle under the strain of having to deal with these things as young adults.
Years ago, theologian O.M. Bakke published a book titled When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity. In it, Bakke notes that the idea of children as fully human, with infinite value and inalienable rights, was a distinctly Christian invention. In the ancient world, children were beaten, ignored, left to die, and sexualized with alarming regularity. However, this changed because of Christians, who adopted unwanted children, condemned their sexualization, and embraced their God-given role as parents.
Let everything take second place to our care for our children, our bringing them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. … ponder deeply how you can teach [your child] to think lightly of this life’s passing glories; thus, he will become truly renowned and glorious.
And, of course, Jesus commanded that His disciples “Let the little children come to me” and issued a dire warning to anyone who would cause a child to stumble. Because of Christians, the idea of childhood came into existence.
Protecting play may seem like an insignificant way for Christians to take our place in this aspect of the Christian story, but play reveals a part of who God made us to be. This is especially true for children. Play also points us to the generous, joyful heart of God. G.K. Chesterton once quipped, “It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Kasey Leander. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to breakpoint.org.
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