Making mud pies, climbing trees, catching insects, and walking to the corner store are the building blocks of imagination and, more and more often, missing elements in the typical American childhood.
It’s a trend that’s the focus of a documentary scheduled to air on Michigan Public Broadcasting television stations this month.
Producers of the film chronicled daily play activities of Michigan children who live in rural, suburban, and urban neighborhoods. Settings included Beaver Island, where children tend to spend much more of their time in meadows or on bicycles. Their activities were compared with those of their peers living in industrial cities with sidewalks and neighborhood schools as well as youngsters who live in estate-style enclaves with no sidewalks, carpool transportation, and easy access to electronic media.
Where Do the Children Play examines the dramatic changes that have occurred in child’s play over the past 50 years. Work on the film began in 2001 with Elizabeth Goodenough’s work that led to Secret Spaces of Childhood (University of Michigan Press, 2003). Goodenough is a Ph.D. activist in the emerging field of children’s studies. (Christopher Cook, a regular Hour Detroit contributor, was a producer/director on the project.)
The film suggests that the structure of life today separates children from nature. It also explores how play is much more parent-directed than in the previous two generations.
“We’re raising a generation looking at screens instead of streams,” one speaker says in the film. Research shows, it says, that, “Only in nature do all our senses work at the same time.”
But it’s the children in the film who may best illustrate the thesis. A young girl on Beaver Island is seen holding a Queen Anne’s lace wildflower. “Some people think Queen Anne was making her lace and pricked her finger and a drop of blood fell,” she says, referring to the familiar dark speck at the center of the flower. That bit of shared lore underscores a key point of the film: that in raising highly regimented children, we sacrifice creativity and imagination for an adult concept of success.
Where Do the Children Play is scheduled to air at 9 p.m. on April 15 on all seven Michigan PBS stations (WTVS-56 in Detroit).