Class Notes

Playing for Keeps

Being a kid isn’t what it used to be

By Paula Marantz Cohen | September 3, 2013


Recently, thinking back on our childhoods, a friend and I remembered long summer days when we ran free. He recalls how neighborhood kids formed baseball teams that would play on and on until dusk. I remember the delicious laxness of summer when children of different ages on our dead-end block played hide and seek in our backyards. My parents had a cowbell near the front door that they rang when they wanted my sister and me to come home for dinner.

But by the time my daughter Kate was seven, structured play was gaining traction. One of the mothers in the neighborhood told me that if I didn’t sign Kate up for travel soccer, she would never forgive me. I didn’t and she did—though we eventually succumbed to tennis lessons. You couldn’t live in our suburban community and remain immune beyond a certain point to structured play.

This phenomenon reflects a larger need to control and prescribe experience, a trend that I discussed in an earlier column. In a narrower sense, it has to do with the way the requirements for college admission have evolved in the past 30 years or so. In 1971, an “A” average, SAT scores of 690 in math and 730 in English, along with membership in the French club and the forensic society, were enough to get me into an Ivy League school. Now, I’d be feverishly prepping to lift my SAT scores. And would I even dare to write “French club member” on my application? Such a modest extracurricular would be laughable. I would have to build houses in Martinique or give a speech at the Elysee Palace to have a crack at a top school nowadays. Back then, though, being a French club member was a very loose and delightful thing: we went to French movies and French restaurants, we ate croissants, and we spoke with each other in our broken French. It was fun. That was the point.

But extracurricular activities are not about fun any more. They’re the farm teams for college admission. They involve hard work and are highly structured, though part of the structure, ironically, is that they must contain an “original” component—a double bind, if there ever was one.

It’s sad to think the long days of summer, now just ending, are no longer the relaxing stretches between dawn and dusk they once were. They are now the time for practices and drills, for honing essays, lifting scores, and perfecting accents. It grieves me to see this, and I mourn the loss of unstructured play for our kids.

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