Roger Hart wanted to find out how children behaved naturally, out of sight from prying adult eyes. It was part of his doctoral dissertation at Clark University, Massachusetts, in 1972.
Professor Hart recently told CBC Radio’s The Current that “Back then, we knew more about baboons in the wild than the natural habits of children,” So he went about studying children the way any anthropologist would: at a distance with field glasses.
When that got him nowhere, he approached the principal of a school in the small Vermont town where he was doing his research and was given a room where he could talk and discover what free range children did.
It was plain to the children that he, Roger Hart, was an adult himself. To lower this conspicuous barrier, he developed unique interviewing techniques. Over two years he was able to gain insights into the unsupervised world of 86 children; every 4 to 12 year-old in the town was tracked and play was documented.
It’s important to understand that play is not a frivolous activity says Hart. It’s at the core of development. Play is fundamental to the way children learn and grow socially.
Hart was given rare access into a world that few adults see. The children spent much of their time on their own, building forts and creating imaginary landscapes their parents often knew nothing about. Parents didn’t organize activities. Children found friends on their own. “It is through cycling around that the older boys chance to fall into games with each other,” Hart told The Atlantic magazine. The forts they built were not praised and cooed over by their parents, because their parents almost never saw them.
Much of own childhood was spent in the wild out of the gaze of my mother, a single parent who worked at a full-time job. I grew up on the edge of Mill Creek in Edmonton which was both a refuge and study in hierarchical social structures. I learned to make a bows from broken hockey sticks with which we hunted rabbits. My friends and I learned how to avoid the dreaded Strip Gang who would strip hapless victims naked and throw them in the frigid waters of Mill Creek in the spring when the water ran blood-red from the runoff of meat packing plant upstream.
Much had changed when Professor Hart returned to the little Vermont town in 2006. Even former children in his study, now adults with children of their own, held their children near. And the children had changed as well. “They were so used to having their lives organized by their parents,” Hart explained. The new principal at the school said he didn’t want Hart doing any research there because it was not directly related to the curriculum.
A new study called The Creativity Crisis indicates that hermetically-raised children now are: “less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesizing, and less likely to see things from a different angle.”
Maybe my perceptions of the good old days are not completely nostalgic.