• Free for All Baltimore

An Open Letter to U.S. Advocates for Play

We want the conversation about childhood and play in the United States to be better at describing the actual children of the United States. The dominant narrative regarding barriers and access to play in the United States is not accurate.

By defining the barriers to play as “helicopter parenting,” over-scheduled children loaded with after-school enrichment programming, a litigious society and an aversion to risk, we are erasing the actual barriers to play for millions of children from the conversation.

By holding up the white and affluent “over-protected child” as a banner and call to action, we are embracing the patterns and practices of oppression that led to the murder of Tamir Rice.

What does a nine-year-old Black child learn when he is detained and questioned by police officers for over an hour for walking to the barber shop with his friends, while his white neighbors walk past without seeing him, joking with the police?

What do families and people of color who work with children learn when they see play and childhood conferences hold up advocates like Peter Gray and Lenore Skenazy, who idealize the “freedom” of childhood in a country defined by savage inequalities and extol the virtues of today’s “free range” children as future leaders while ignoring the actual dangers faced by children today and the precarious uncertainties of their futures?

Actual barriers to play for millions of children in the United States and families are hunger and poverty, real fears about gun violence, police brutality and racial profiling, the absence of options for childcare and supervision, and the obligations of over-worked and under-paid adults.

We are not describing a niche aspect of childhood in the United States. We are describing the conditions of childhood itself. In 2013, for the first time in 50 years, a majority of children in U.S. public schools qualified for free or reduced meals. In 2014, white children made up a minority of children in public schools. It is past time for play advocates to recognize that U.S. society is polarized by income inequality and respond to the intersections of race and class and their impacts on childhood for millions of children and families.

We recently attended a play conference where an overwhelmingly white group of advocates and researchers sat in meeting rooms and lamented the purported lack of play among “children today.” Simultaneously, in real life, a Black mother and her eleven-year-old son were shot on a playground in Baltimore in the midst of dozens of playing children.

Unfortunately, it is all too easy to see examples of the impacts of segregation, criminalization and oppression in the lives of children today. A predominantly white “play movement” can choose to ignore these realities and continue catering to a cultivated image of children ‘hot-housed’ for success. Or we can learn from the play advocates who are speaking about play and racism. We can follow the lead of initiatives like the Baltimore Children and Youth Fund, which saw in the Baltimore uprising of 2015 “a moment that shed light on the issue of a lack of equity and access, on the community level, to a range of resources.” BCYF is now engaged in a process to “get more capital to community-based groups and populations of young people who are historically marginalized, in parts of the city that are off the radar.”

It is not true that kids don’t play anymore. All kids play in all kinds of circumstances. Poverty and oppression do not prevent kids from playing. Our social and political practices and traditions – including historic and contemporary segregation – do impact children’s ability to play safely. We want play advocacy to speak and act in ways that support and provide for the right to play for all children in the United States.

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