My dad recently e-mailed around a New York Times Op-Ed by David Elkind who writes about the disappearance of children’s playtime among Western children. Building on our friend Richard Louv’s idea of “nature deficit disorder” —the increasing reliance on artificial entertainment rather than enjoyment of the outdoors—Elkind warns that even school recesses in the United States are becoming micro-managed by “recess coaches.” Kids these days, while more connected than ever, are also dangerously out of touch with the natural world. Further, playtime in general has become completely devoid of spontaneity (think parent-organized “play-dates”) and the kind of thrills that come from exploring forbidden parts of the woods and catching snakes. Experts argue that this shift might have major consequences for children’s intellectual and social development.
But what about kids in other parts of the world, like here in Senegal? From the moment I wake up at 6:30 or 7a.m., child’s play is loud and abundant. The children here will make a toy out of anything, and since they have nothing, their toys are crafted out of trash. Old metal scraps will become toy cars, old strips of fabric will become costumes. One day I found that Mamadou, my seven-year-old host brother, had opened up the trash bag I had thrown away and was joyfully playing with my empty Nasonex sprayer. They are free to run outside the house without their parent’s permission and go swimming in the river. They rarely complain about what they don’t have or that they are bored (as far as I can tell).
However, I’m not trying to draw a facile contrast to the United States by pointing out that children here embrace the outdoors and exercise their creativity in making toys out of trash. Yes, these children do seem to be having more genuine fun. They laugh more and whine less.
But there is something I have noticed that is missing when compared to my culture: participation of parents. Mothers and fathers here are very playful with babies and toddlers, but by the time a child is about five years old, parents usually expect them to just play alone or with other kids. I have seen my little host brother desperately wanting to play with someone while both of his parents just sat nearby, watching him hit a stick repeatedly against the wall. I was shocked once to see a Senegalese man take his daughter and son to the beach to play soccer with them. It is simply uncommon.
Part of this must stem from the culture here of hierarchy between the generations. Adults have the nice chairs, the better pieces of meat and vegetables, and the last word. Children are free to play and laugh, but it is done amongst themselves. There is likely a lot that I am missing due to the language barrier, but it doesn’t seem like my host brothers and sisters form the same type of intellectual bonds with their parents that I did with mine: no “dinner table discussion” or time spent just interacting as individuals. Given how hard it is even for American parents to be open with their children with things like sex education, imagine how tough the barriers are within Senegalese families on the same topics.
Yet, have child development experts tested how well adjusted or not Senegalese children are?
Growing up, I built forts and went camping, but experiencing the great outdoors was never my number one passion in life. Yet now, a bit more so than when I was a child, I find myself needing my pocket knife, riding my mountain bike through sand, and spontaneously deciding to get muddy and explore a new part of the river. Perhaps in one way or another, we seek out the things in life that were missing from before.