When Sherman Oaks mom Nathalie Miller was young, her summers of free play stretched before her like the vast fields of the farm in France where she grew up. "I never went to camp. My mother would open the door and we'd be gone for the day, completely unsupervised.
Today, she uses her computer in her home office to monitor the meticulously measured lives of her two young children, Chloe, 5, and Noah, 2-1/2, printing out and posting regular schedules for them.
"I just came back from figuring out how many weeks we can afford to send them to summer camp this year," she sighs. "Then, for the rest of the time, it will be housekeepers and baby sitters."
What about free play? Nathalie laughs, "We try to plan as much of it as possible."
Free play is that increasingly elusive childhood time when the clock is internal and sleep is measured by the sun. It's what sent Alice down the rabbit hole - an experience, experts note, that had its perilous moments but left her wiser and more self-possessed. And it is fast disappearing.
While the Millers at least see the value of free play, the very fact that it must be carefully planned is symptomatic of the times, says Dean Wright, professor of sociology at Drake University in Des Moines. "True free play as we used to know it is going away. All our lives are becoming more scheduled, especially children."
The reasons are numerous and compelling: Working parents need childcare, all parents are increasingly concerned about safety, and many parents of older children see supervised activities as a protection against drug or alcohol abuse. In addition, adults often try to give their children an extra edge through study or specialized programs in what they see as the highly competitive workplace of tomorrow.
The impact is being felt at increasingly younger ages. The American Camping Association, for example, reports that more seven-year-olds (usually the minimum age) will be attending sleep-away camp this summer than in any previous year.
But, says Dr. Wright, who studies juvenile delinquency, something is getting lost. "Life is becoming so structured that kids are growing up without any sense of how to plan for themselves," he notes. "They are losing their own individuality, which in turn prevents them from seeing the individuality of others in society."
Space and time
Mrs. Miller's fellow Frenchman, the 16th-century essayist Montaigne wrote, "It should be noted that children at play are not playing about; their games should be seen as their most serious activity."
"Space and time - children need lots of both," agrees Prof. Eva Shober, chair of the education department at Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, Va., which runs a campus laboratory school. "In some important ways, the free play is the most important part of our program, especially for younger children."
Free play allows children to exercise creativity, developing lifelong skills such as deciding how to use time and how to share materials and space, says the educator. Children who don't develop these abilities will contribute less to their community, be more passive, and need to be entertained as adults, experts say.
Ms. Shober underlines the critical role of the parent. "The way a child's life is structured depends on the adult's values and availability." She says more unstructured time will help both generations. She has observed the importance of nondirected play with her grandchildren, allowing them hours of uninterrupted time to "dream up things to do."
Fellow educator Shirley Fenwick, associate professor of developmental psychology at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., agrees, saying the problem is compounded by what she sees as the "gourmet child" syndrome. "Many parents today are raising the perfect mathematician or astronaut, instead of simply an individual. They're pushing their children to lead the ideal lives they wanted for themselves."
Fenwick points to the increased discretionary income of many baby-boomer parents. They typically have more money to spend on children's activities than their parents did. And they care more about status. "The parents are raising them based on their own ego needs, not necessarily what's best for the children."
She warns, however, that parents who run their children's lives end up taking over. "The children don't develop the autonomy they need to find out who they are, separate from the family or society."
Balancing structure and freedom
Based on her research, Fenwick says flatly, "children who do too much, too young, burn out."
The goal, she stresses with parents who are part of a project run by her department, is a balance between too much and too little structure.
While today's parents struggle to find that balance, sociologist Wright points out that adult values have always played a critical role in defining childhood. "Leisure time is a relatively modern concept. It used to be that children were considered mature at age 7 and put to work."
Now adult values are redefining childhood again. "Society is speeding up, driven by new technology, and nobody is immune," he says. He suggests that out of the hurried lifestyle, a new form of "play" may emerge.
"Who knows?" he asks. "All this 'busyness' that surrounds children today, maybe it will become the play of the next generation." One thing, Wright says, is for certain. As society speeds up, the children who will excel in the next century are those who can function well in fast-paced, highly structured environments.