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A Place to Just Play: A New, Vital Role for Public Libraries, Part 1

2018 September 4
by Henry Stokes

Back in the spring, I attended a talk by a visiting lecturer at my local library. Peter Gray, a psychology professor at Boston College and author of the book, Free to Learn, was there to speak on the topic of “Play Deficit Disorder: A National Crisis and How to Solve It Locally”. I was to discover from the talk that one way to solve the problem of the “play deficit” locally is… the public library itself.

In his talk, Gray defined what he meant by “play”, its extreme importance to all humans’ development, how school-aged kids were now being deprived of it, the cost of that deprivation, and what to do about it.

You may be wondering as I was about this “play deficit” – what is that? Gray explained that, over the last 60 years, our society has increasingly taken children’s freedom to play away from them. It’s been gradual enough that we may not have even noticed it. What was once normal, accepted practice throughout human history: allowing children to go out and play by themselves with other children – is now regarded as negligence. From one generation to the next, the number of hours children play outside unaccompanied has been cut in half. And the range of play, the kinds of play activities, and where they can play, have all been severely limited. School hours during the day have increased, and recesses have been reduced or removed altogether from the schedule. Outside of school, many children have had their “free” time after school heavily scheduled with non-play-oriented activities. They no longer have time and space to go out and be by themselves with other children to make and direct their own games and activities. It’s during play, Gray explains, that children are able to develop the basic life skills they must acquire in order to grow up, be successful, and have a meaningful life.

According to Gray, children appear to be suffering from this deprivation of play. Research shows that school-age teenagers are eight times more depressed and anxious than they were in the 1950s. The suicide rate for children under age 15 has increased six-fold since the 1950s and doubled in the last 10 years. In the same time frame, suicide rate for the middle-aged has not increased at all, and for seniors has actually decreased dramatically. Older folks are doing fine, and the kids are suffering. Gray sees a correlation between the lack of play opportunities among school-age children and these rising rates of their depression and anxiety.

So how can the public library help? It occurred to me after Gray’s talk that libraries are perfectly positioned to address this issue. They are already reliable, established places in the community where self-directed learning and play, unaccompanied by adults, is encouraged. Libraries offer up their books, services, and resources like a playground for people to engage in – where no one is judged and patrons have the freedom to pursue individual passions. Programs can be provided for school-age children and teens that are outside of, and unrestricted by, the schools. By providing free play opportunities, libraries can carve out the space and time, found lacking in children’s everyday lives, for local kids and teens to play and develop the basic life skills they need. Play is a crucial tool for social and emotional learning, developing creativity, problem solving, and conflict resolution. Libraries can step up and provide this important service to their communities.

After this illuminating talk, I discovered something else surprising: my local public library, Westbank Community Library, the host of Peter Gray’s talk, has already started to step up! They have begun running numerous programs all around the idea of free play inspired by Gray’s book and ideas. I soon started bringing my four-year old twins to the library’s “Free Play & Food Trucks” every Monday afternoon. I stood in the back of the library with the other parents and library staff, trying desperately to stay inconspicuous and un-involved (not always easy as the impulse is to participate), as all ages of children played, unrestrained, with various toys and games that had been strewn about a large interior and exterior part of the library’s property. There was no set program, theme, or objective – just free play.

Panoramic shot of the Free Play Room

Free Play Room at Laura’s Library (Photo Credit: Westbank Library)

I wanted to learn more. Why was the library doing this? What inspired it? How was it going? Any lessons learned? Would other libraries be interested in similar approaches? Check out Part 2 for an interview with Westbank Community Library staff to hear more about their innovative Free Play programming and its impact.

 


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