by Drew Beeman
When I was growing up my family was involved with a clown troop. I was literally raised by clowns and it does seem to explain a lot about the man I have become. It seems I jest, and I guess I do a little, but it is really true. My devotion to bettering the lives of children and my sense of humor were very much influenced by my experiences with clowns and as a clown myself. I no longer dress up as a clown but I do work with children. For the most part my work with children has been about the role of play in children’s learning. Recently the leader of the clown troop passed away and I have had a bit of a shift in my focus as a result of reflecting on his life.
My friend Tom, AKA “Uncle Cabin” lead the clown troop. He was a mixed bag of a man so to speak, but he devoted his life to bringing joy to people especially kids. When he passed it really got me thinking and reflecting. When I was involved in the clown troop that was my focus as well. But over the years I lost that focus, pivoted toward teaching, and children learning, and I also struggled with a loss of personal joy.
When I read a blog from Peter Gray entitled “The Decline of Play and Rise in Children’s Mental Disorders” and his book “Free to Learn” I realized a great need for increased joy in our society, culture and in each of us. In a lot of his writings, he lays out research that has been conducted since the 1950’s about how the amount of time children have spent in self-directed play has decreased dramatically since then. There has also been a dramatic rise in childhood mental disorders, especially ADHD, Anxiety/Depression, and Narcissism. The rise in childhood mental disorders since the 1950’s and the decline in time spent at play, seem to have an exact correlation. This leads Peter Gray and other prominent psychologists and researches to believe that this correlation is so strong, that we might as well consider it almost “causation”. This along with the work of researcher Jaak Panksepp, about play, the brain and joy have lead me to believe very strongly that it is time we raise Generation Joy!
Here are some disturbing statistics from Peter Gray. Approximately 85% of young people today suffer from Anxiety and Depression, on a scale greater than the average scale of the same age group in the 1950’s. Since 1950 the US suicide rate for children under 15 years old has quadrupled, for 15 to 24 year olds it has more than doubled. More than 21 million prescriptions for stimulants are written each year mostly for kids 6 to 14 years old. That is a 400%increase from a decade ago. Anti-depressant use has risen 333% over the past decade as well. In the 25 years from 1982 through 2007,levels of narcissism rose significantly. By 2007 nearly 70 percent of college students scored higher in narcissism, during testing, than the average college student in 1982. Sad news indeed!
There is good news! Many researchers, and developmental psychologists now believe, due in part to the work of Jaak Panksepp on the connection between joy and play, that we can solve this problem by allowing children more time to play. Some of these same people even go so far as to say that most childhood mental disorders could be straight up cured, or at least become non existent, if we allowed children more time to play independently. Some even say that ADHD is misdiagnosed most often and should really be called “Play Deficit Disorder”.
I’m convinced! I see children really thrive, and see them full of joy,when they are allowed to play with little to no adult interference or direction. I see them learn more from their own exploration and repetitive processes, than when adults try to drill academic information into them. I see them excited to learn when they are allowed to simply play and play the way they want to.
Since each generation has become increasingly more depressed, anxious, etc…I say we reverse this trend, and allow way more time for play. Then we will successfully raise Generation Joy!