When Play Is Criminalized: Racial Disparities in Childhood
Racial disparities in the way children are allowed to play denies many Black kids an important childhood right. (Photo: Stefano Brivio / Flickr)
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A significant segment of the child-age population in the United States is effectively denied one of the most important rights of childhood: free play. The trend away from unstructured play can have deleterious effects on the cognitive, social and emotional development of affected children. Because of disparities in opportunities for physical activity at school, the semi-privatization of public space, and the criminalization of Black and Brown bodies in motion, children of color, especially those of low socio-economic status, too often miss this essential requirement for healthy childhood development.
According to Diane Barnes, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) in private practice in New York City, "both children and adolescents require at least 60 minutes or more per day" of physical activity. "Their activities," Barnes says, "are obviously different. While young children are running around the playground, older kids are more likely to be engaged in exercise that is related to a sport such as football or soccer."
It is the "running around" -- the uninhibited activity -- that is so crucial to cognitive, social and emotional childhood development. "Free play should be imaginative and self-directed," says Barnes. "The ideas should come from within. Dance classes and soccer classes do not count as free play." Indeed, even school physical education classes, while important to overall wellness and an essential component of a balanced, healthy education, don't count as free play. "While it would be wonderful to increase PE," Barnes says, "PE should not be mistaken as free play because it is not. It is not only necessary for children to have the room to play, but this play needs to be free play and not under the microscope of teachers or other professionals."
The Importance of Free Play
Indeed, a growing body of research proves the influence of play on children is overwhelmingly positive, as it leads to greater academic achievement and better executive function . Free play looks less like PE and more like recess -- or at least like recess time as memorialized in the well of the American imagination. Images of children goofing off, climbing, leaping, falling and even bruising with wild abandon populate the collective consciousness of our past.
However, despite the efforts of movements like Free-Range Kids , American children rarely move independently, without the watchful gaze of adults who monitor their every movement. This hypervigilant eye is watchful even when older school-aged children play in their own neighborhoods. For children who are Black and Brown, this adult gaze -- in the form of surveillance by both police and school authorities -- often criminalizes their young bodies. Sufficient research reveals the tremendous racial disparities in disciplinary responses to children's behavior in schools and in communities.
An issue brief published by the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity found that,
African American students, and especially African American boys, are disciplined more often and receive more out-of-school suspensions and expulsions than White students. Perhaps more alarming is the 2010 finding that over 70% of the When Play Is Criminalized: Racial Disparities in Childhood: