Child’s Play

Ingredients: cut-up flip flops, an old box, sticks, and a lime. Result: Makeshift Foosball Table

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.

4 thoughts on “Child’s Play

  1. An insightful entry, Maya. Rachel Carson believed that for a child to develop a meaningful relationship with nature, that child needs both special places and special people. A caring adult who introduces children to nature is as important as access to a special natural place. So perhaps the best combination is what you had as a child: special natural places and caring parents who participated with you in nature. In fact, one of the many things I admire about your parents and you and your sister is that, for all of you, work and play are not separate, and that all of you share your experiences with one another — and others.
    – rich

  2. I think the whole nature deficit idea is very interesting. Below are some of my initial reactions, thinking about culture and the specificity of culture, and how culture is constituted by other factors, such as class/socioeconomic status:

    Part of what I’m hearing relates to issues of class in the United States. Poor kids in the United States, whether it’s the urban city or rural America, do not have the same types of “toys” that we assume are the norm for most children/youth in the U.S. Thus, they also play “outdoors.”

    In a way, I want to complicate the cultural divide of “us” and “them” or “American” and “Senegalese.” There may indeed be certain differences, my point is moreso that there are other factors that might be interacting with culture, and also to think about internal group differences within the U.S. as well as Senegal. This is not to say there can never be any cultural differences.

    For example, kids in Senegal might not complain as much as American kids aside from playing outside more often, but for other reasons, one of which might be class in the sense that American children are oftentimes more spoiled than Senegalese children in terms of material things or perhaps culturally socialized to have certain expectations that they should eat the best piece of meat and other ideas of entitlement as children, such as being the prince/princess of the household .

    The other part about your own parenting experiences also seems to relate to class, which is related to culture but not completely the same thing. What I mean is, what you seem to be noting in terms of parental interaction with children may indeed relate to culture in Senegal, but your own experiences with your parents might not simply be a function of American culture, given that American culture is extremely heterogeneous based on race, immigration, class and so forth. The culture you are observing is interacting and shaped by class.

    My parents never really played with my siblings or me, and I’m not sure how much of it was culture and how much of it was a function of labor/economic conditions wherein my parents did not have the time to “play.” Same is true about engaging children in more intellectual conversations, I’m not sure how much of this is culture and how much of this is also about class, both in Senegal and in the United States.

    Interesting stuff!

    • I’ve thought about my previous comment some more, and I wanted to make some clarifications. I’m not making a “colorblind” claim or saying that there aren’t cultural differences between different racial/ethnic/national groups.

      There can be and sometimes are certain patterns of beliefs and practices that are generalizable to a certain extent to particular communities, that is one way in which I understand “culture.”

      I think what I was trying to say in my previous post was that whatever “cultural differences” we see are not discretely “cultural” and are not fixed in time. Rather, some of the “cultural differences” we see might be shaped by power or a bunch of different forces (including capitalism), and sometimes those cultural differences might be maintained by different forces over time. Therefore the “culture” that we see, generally understood as fixed in time as discrete and generationally transmitted, are actually fluid, shifting, politically contested processes that produce and constantly rearticulate what we see as simply “cultural differences.”

      Do you remember the Uma Narayan piece we read in Luke’s class about “tradition” and how sati is cast by Western feminists as well as Indian nationalists to reinforce Western racism and subordinate Indian women? I think I’m trying to make a similar theoretical move.

  3. Jawu,
    Yep, all these issues are definitely influenced by class and no doubt the part about having “intellectual conversations” with one’s parents is more a result of the “culture” that comes from a certain socioeconomic status, rather than a culture from within a nation/region.

    The inherent problem in blog posts is that I’m not trying to make a well-rounded, academic argument, so some deeper thinking is lost for the sake of brevity (thus I didn’t discuss class). Also, it is a touchy subject to blog about Senegal, because on one hand I am trying to simply relay my experiences here, but on the other hand I have to be careful to not to reinforce “us/them,” “american/senegalese” discussions.

    I agree with what you’re saying. The main point I was trying to make is that it’s easy for “nature” advocates to look at developing countries and think that child’s play here is “better,” that a simpler childhood without toys is more beneficial to child development. It is an overly nostalgic view. I wanted to point out that it’s not that cut and dry… ideally kids also need the involvement of adults, something I don’t see occurring a lot here in Senegal (while admittedly I am not living among the upper middle class).

    Thanks for your comment this is exactly the type of dialogue I’m hoping to have on this blog.

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