Yesterday my 5th grader came home from school and did a happy “no homework” dance. Her afterschool class that day has finished for the semester, and she had the afternoon free! She wanted to celebrate with a playdate (everyone uses this word, but it makes me cringe) and busily started calling friends to invite them over. For a variety of reasons, none of the six of them were available (busy, piano lesson, dance class, not home), and that was the end of our list for possible impromptu playdate invitees – the other friends are in afterschool care, so getting together with them requires planning with the parents in advance.
This is vastly different from my childhood. Almost every day after school, especially in the spring and summer when the days are long the seven kids on my block would wander over to each other’s house: “wanna play?” and we’d divide our time among one another’s bedrooms and back yards. This was not unusual for (way) back then (the 1970’s) – my husband had a similar experience. Even though we now live in a suburban neighborhood with a fairly cohesive community, I think in order to get anywhere close to this kind of daily “wanna play?” spontaneity my kids need to be in an aftercare program, where, in our school program at least, a clump of kids are turned out to play on the school playground together for some time during the afternoon.
Instead, like a lot of kids her age, my daughter is in afterschool classes, lessons and programs, scheduled activities and scheduled play. Great, fun, educational programs and a way to be around other kids. But all scheduled and supervised. With invited playdates, things are different than drop-by play. You’re invited to someone’s house. The distinction between guest and host is stronger, and calls for more ritualized, scripted behavior.
I recently read a related article online at Psychology Today  which made a similar argument, although phrased in terms of a large segment of American kids being “over-parented”: pushed constantly towards academic achievement by hyper-involved parents (which, the author concludes, may lead to a more anxious, compliant, and risk-adverse generation). Yes, there certainly is this syndrome of parental pushing for overachievers. But it also seems to me that we live in a complicated world now where ironically takes it a lot of effort for parents to facilitate the simple art of unstructured, unsupervised play. For one thing, there simply are fewer parents around during the day. Once there isn’t that critical mass of kids left to their own devices the spiral begins and everyone needs to structure more.
Today I went to the grocery store, and walked through the “seasonal items” section. Right now this aisle has summer paraphernalia – skewers and grill cutlery, beach balls, plastic popsicle moulds, lawn chairs. Today I saw something I’d never seen before: a package of pre-cut marshmallow-roasting sticks. Now there’s an example of controlled, adult-imposed childhood.