'Chasing Childhood': A Film About Why Kids Need Less Work and More Play

America's kids are so busy studying that they're not learning how to play.

children doing ballet class

Chasing Childhood (used with permission)

Children are pushed hard to succeed in modern American culture. But the definition of success is a narrow one. It means admission to a top-tier college, which requires long hours of academic work to get top grades, a lengthy list of extracurricular activities to pad one's application (some starting as young as age three), and a conspicuous lack of free time in which to play on one's own terms. All too often this "success" comes at the cost of a child's long-term health and happiness.

A great new documentary called "Chasing Childhood" challenges the wisdom of this approach. Drawing on the expertise of several big names in the free-range play and parenting world, including journalist and "Free Range Kids" author Lenore Skenazy, evolutionary psychologist Peter Gray who co-founded the Let Grow Foundation with Skenazy, and former Stanford dean and author of "How to Raise an Adult" Julie Lythcott-Haims, it makes the argument that there is a better way to do things to ensure a child's success in life. Parents need to step back, lower the academic pressure, de-schedule their kids' lives, and relinquish control over their every movement. 

Dr. Gray describes the present atmosphere as a big social experiment. For the first time ever, children are deprived of freedom; except in times of slavery and intense child labor, children have always been free to explore and do things away from adults. He says, "We are negating childhood and we are making children depressed and anxious."

Children desperately need free, unorganized play to learn important things. Gray explains, "From a biological perspective, play is nature's way of ensuring that young mammals practice the whole range of skills that they need to become effective adults." It is also practice for what's arguably the most important human skill – getting along with other people.

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Chasing Childhood (used with permission)

The film weaves in the story of Savannah Eason, a high-achieving student from Wilton, CT, who got straight A's throughout elementary and high school. She hit a limit in twelfth grade, however, crippled by anxiety that turned into suicidal thoughts and eventual hospitalization in the midst of college applications. She became addicted to marijuana and went to rehab. Needless to say, her career plans pivoted drastically once she was sober and she ended up graduating from the Culinary Institute of America as a pastry chef – success of a different sort than what she'd been working for all those years, but far more fulfilling.

Savannah's mother Genevieve features prominently in the film as a voice of caution. Despite having enjoyed a free-range childhood herself in Hawaii, she did not allow her own children to have that, thinking she was doing them a favor by pushing academics. But now she sees the folly in that and is actively involved in a free play task force in her community that encourages parents and educators to reevaluate their approach.

Former Stanford dean Julie Lythcott-Haims, who travels around the country giving talks after the enormous success of her book, offers some insight. She says helicopter parenting isn't restricted to affluent white families: "Children are hovered over, managed, watched, handled, fixed by parents in many different communities." She goes on:

"We've mortgaged our kids' childhood in exchange for the chance that they will have the grand future that we have in mind for them. But when you mortgage your kid's childhood, it's a debt that can never be repaid."

There is no replacing a lost childhood. Or as Lenore Skenazy says in the film, "All the worry in the world doesn't prevent death. It prevents life."

In order to restore that life to children, Skenazy works as a free play advocate for her non-profit Let Grow, visiting schools and trying to convince teachers and parents to let children do things that the children themselves feel capable of doing but have not been allowed to for various reasons, usually paranoia on the part of parents. Children who participate in the Let Grow project take on a challenge to do something that pushes their limits, and the film crew follows several of them on these adventures – crossing New York City alone by train, meeting a friend for ice cream without parental supervision, even throwing a party for 30 classmates at home. 

These activities are not as dangerous as many parents think, even in big cities where violent crime rates are the lowest they've been in decades. The film offers some much-needed statistics. The odds of dying in a car crash are 1 in 113; of getting struck by lightning, 1 in 14,600; and of getting abducted by a stranger when you're between the ages of 0 and 18, only 1 in 300,000.

The film gives several examples of progressive schools in Long Island, led by superintendent Michael Hynes, that have pulled back the emphasis on academics, replacing lesson time with additional recess, yoga, meditation, and indoor free play. The effect on children's mental wellbeing is significant, Hynes says; there are fewer behavioral issues, fewer diagnoses of attention deficit disorder, and kids are far happier.

It's clear that something has to change. "Chasing Childhood" offers a solution, supported by science and statistics; not only is it free and readily accessible, it's also a whole lot more fun for both children and parents. It's time to let the kids be kids.

You can find out more information about the film here and watch trailer below:

View Article Sources
  1. MUNZER LOEB, MARGARET. "CHASING CHILDHOOD". Chasingchildhooddoc.Com, 2020