The No-Play Playdate

So it's not The Playdate From Hell but it's more common, subtle and insidious.  It's more like The Playdate From Purgatory:

Two kids slumped on the couch, yours chewing a chunk of hair, the other staring at the floor.  Your kid's been begging to have so and so over and nothing, nothing is happening.  No talk much less play.  They can't agree on what to do.  They're bored.  Moments away from asking to play Wii. 

We've all been there.  The playdate with The Kid Who Cannot Play.

The old-fashioned, unplugged version without adult intervention, the well-equipped playroom or the promise of snacks.  This is the kid whose parent is amazed by the impromptu tiger hunt, the human pyramid in the backyard, the goth girl fashion show, the "dead man in a blanket" game.  The logic-defying concoctions of children left to their own imaginations. 

Behaviors I used to take for granted.   

Turns out, I am not confabulating this no-play playing.  Kids need help.  We're talking recess facilitators, referees who direct kids on the playground

Blame the tv, the internet, our exaggerated fears of child predators, the break-down of the family, working moms (and dads) or our growing academic expectations admidst an increasingly skilled and competitive global marketplace, but kids don't spend afternoons just hanging out.  

And thus developing crucial social skills we psychologists like to worry about and that seem in short supply in children not to mention reality tv personalities and members of Congress.  Though I don't go so far as blaming the lack of free play for chronic bullying, it does have consequences.  And those dragging play dates are no picnic. 

No less than David Elkind has noticed.  Yes, the noted psychologist, the grandfather of the free play movement, the outspoken critic of excessive extra-cirriculars, the author of The Hurried Child - the same guy who warned us 25 years ago about the benefits, no, necessity of unstructured play time free from intrusive adults.  The man has endorsed recess facilitators:
Critics have suggested that such coaching is yet another example of the over-scheduling and over-programming of our children. And, as someone whose scholarly work has consistently reinforced the idea that young people need unstructured imagination time, I’d probably have been opposed to recess coaches in the past. But childhood has changed so radically in recent years that I think the trend makes sense, at least at some schools and with some students. ....For children in past eras, participating in the culture of childhood was a socializing process. They learned to settle their own quarrels, to make and break their own rules, and to respect the rights of others. They learned that friends could be mean as well as kind, and that life was not always fair...Now that most children no longer participate in this free-form experience — play dates arranged by parents are no substitute — their peer socialization has suffered. One tangible result of this lack of socialization is the increase in bullying, teasing and discrimination that we see in all too many of our schools.  Playtime Is Over, New York Times, March 26.
Childhood has changed forever.  Even Doc Elkind is throwing in the proverbial play time towel.  What's next, Dr. Sears promoting infant formula?  Autism Speaks advocating vaccines?
Even Wikipedia's got a spin on play time, rather the poor play-substitute, the much-maligned modern "play date":

A play date or playdate is an arranged appointment for children to get together for a few hours to play.

To play? As in interact.  Okay, maybe....might need to tweak that wording. 

Why do we need them?

...because the work schedules for busy parents, along with media warnings about leaving children unattended, prevent the kind of play that children of other generations participated in.[citation needed]

Like my dad and his 6 siblings playing kick the can in the street in the dark. Or riding their bikes down town without helmets, water or cell phones.  While his mother, bless her, stayed home cleaning, cooking, and washing without benefit of Prozac, Oprah, or Facebook friends. 

The intention of a playdate is to give children time to interact freely in a less structured environment than other planned activities might provide.[citation needed] Playdates are different from organized activities or scheduled sports, because they are not usually structured.

Unless the parent has prepared several planned activities or pre-packaged craft projects. 

Playdates are a late 20th century innovation.[citation needed] Playdates are becoming part of the vernacular of popular culture and form a part of children’s "down time." Most parents prefer children to use these hours to form friendships by playing with other children either one-on-one or within small groups. When children are very young, most parents stay for the playdate and use the time to form their own friendships and parental alliances.
Parental alliances!  Juicy. The reason I dropped out of the "play group" scene years ago.  Thank goodness no one's asked me to join a play group in ages.  Talk about stress. 

Has anyone actually enjoyed the company of ten moms and ten toddlers plus a few infants crammed into a living room?  Maybe it's just me.  I prefer my mommies and small children in small groups. 

The good news, "play group" and "recess facilitator" are up for grabs on Wikipedia. Go for it. 

Okay I'm caging the cattiness as I can no longer blame Vicodin.  What about you and your play date woes?  What's the worst no-play play date you've experienced?  Anyone boycott play dates altogether? All you introvert moms of introvert children, be honest.  Like pulling teeth, no?


Rachel said...

My kids are still too young for me to have experienced a "no play" playdate (18 months and 4 months - all they do is play!), but we do go to a weekly playgroup and sometimes have separate playdates with those moms.

I think I am extremely lucky in the playgroup department, because we all get along quite well. We meet at each others houses and chat while the kids do as they please. Without this semi-structured activity, I'm not sure when my older child would ever encounter other children his own age. I stay at home, so he doesn't interact with other children at daycare, and I never see other toddlers outside playing. Ever. I'm sure that the lack of this kind of community in many areas today also has an effect on how children are experiencing their childhood.

I hope that when my son is older he has the same kind of imagination for playing that kids did when I was growing up, and that his scheduled playdates don't hamper that in him.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Rachel, thanks for the reminder that play groups can work. I did the same thing more informally with a group of moms - and we've mainly remained friends, some, adopted family.

Forgive me for forgetting how difficult it can be to meet other new moms and potential playmates. That is until preschool begins and then if you're like me you'll start cussing in the car-line, dodging birthday parties and wondering when parents started becoming so ridiculous.

TheRextras said...

Your point is well taken, Polly. The new social NEED to assist children to play is worth thought (if not study). Just saying.

For children with diagnoses and their parents the mix of preferences and avoidance for play groups is near individual. (My take from what I read and hear.) So the trend may not be extending to them.

I have as much concern for toys replacing social interaction and preventing learning - meaning the 'toy' does too much. In a recent post I titled "Toys That Teach" I make the point that it is not the toy, but the adult who selects it and can enhance play with the toy. Barbara

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

hi barbara! amen to the toys that talk, count, ring up purchases, and otherwise zap the imagination. there's nothing like a box of crayons, a set of bowls, a few pebbles, etc.

The Fearless Formula Feeder said...

Our playgroup developed because of a hospital Mommy & Me group...they had us all get on an email list and arrange meetings once a month. I think the group started around 15 women, and I hated every minute of it. (Of course, in my case it was partly because they had all bonded in the same hospital's breastfeeding support group, and since I'd gone from exclusive pumper to exclusive formula feeder, I wasn't invited to that "exclusive" club, haha, bad pun). I can be very extroverted when I feel comfortable in a group, but if I get a bad vibe, I clam up like a cup of chowder. And my son seems to have inherited this trait, among many others, from his mother.

Luckily, as time went on, the playgroup splintered off, and now I hang out with some of the moms one on one, or sometimes three of us will meet up. Our kids know each other and get along, and it all works out nicely. But I dread the days when my son is old enough to choose his own friends, and I'm stuck with some moms I don't have anything in common with. I've found mommy culture to be worse than high school... mean girls all around.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

So playgroups can lead us to some friends we might otherwise miss. But I know the feeling well, the "I feel like an alien" or in some cases, as my friend says in her elegant British accent, "the dog's lunch."

As for the parents of children your child befriends, I dreaded that too. But fortunately, thus far, my kids have brought me closer to some great folks. I'm hoping that will continue thanks to what I'd like to imagine is parental modeling (much harder to do than breastfeeding but harder to teach, no?) and perhaps a gene for befriending sweet, well-parented children who won't stab your kid in the back or drive drunk. Fingers crossed...

janetlansbury said...

"The dog's lunch!" The British really nail it, don't they?

Polly, don't want to be scary, but since discovering your site yesterday I feel like I've finally found someone on the web I DON'T feel like the dog's lunch with.

I've had many of the aforementioned-type playdate experiences at my home over the years. One unforgettable one was the tween who came over to play with my somewhat imaginative, but electronically-and-TV-deprived-daughter, and after a few awkward moments poking around said, "Hmmm...this is a BORING house."

I am amazed by the energy some moms have to entertain kids with crafts and games, even when they have their kid's friends over. Isn't the point of a playdate for parents to throw a bag of chips on the table and kick back?

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Oh Janet, I know the feeling! The aha, there's a like-minded soul! I'm thankful to find your site too. It's easy to get discouraged with all the parenting drama around, especially on the internet! I sometimes feel alienated being the moderate momma, which feels oddly daring with the more extreme voices around.

Ah, yes, I get the boring comments here too, especially kids who are looking for the Toys R Us playroom.