No time to play

Today’s children don’t have time to play independently – and to develop social skills — writes psychologist Peter Gray on Aeon. The adults are always in charge.

Growing up in the 1950s, Gray had a “hunter-gatherer education” in addition to formal schooling. The neighborhood kids played after school, often till dark, in mixed-age groups. They played on the weekends and in the summer.

We had time to explore in all sorts of ways, and also time to become bored and figure out how to overcome boredom, time to get into trouble and find our way out of it, time to daydream, time to immerse ourselves in hobbies, and time to read comics and whatever else we wanted to read rather than the books assigned to us.

Since then, adult-directed sports for children have replaced “pickup” games, Gray writes. free-to-learn Adult-directed extracurriculars have replaced hobbies. Parents are afraid to let kids play without supervision.

As children’s free play has declined, children have shown more signs of anxiety and depression, he writes on psychological surveys. Since the ’50s, “the suicide rate for young people aged 15 to 24 has more than doubled, and that for children under age 15 has quadrupled.”

In addition, surveys show “a decline in empathy and a rise in narcissism.”

Children aren’t learning social skills through play, writes Gray. At school, an authoritarian setting, they learn to compete rather than cooperate. Extending the school day will widen the “play deficit” even more, argues Gray.

A Boston College professor, Gray writes the Freedom to Learn blog, and is the author of a new book, Free to Learn.

Kids who want to work — mowing lawns — face “safety” barriers, writes Mollie Hemingway. On the neighborhood listserv, someone asked for feedback on “a group of adorable and entrepreneurial kids (young, maybe 9-11 years old)” looking for mowing jobs. “We didn’t see a parent with them supervising.”

A link was provided to Mowing the Lawn Can Be a Dangerous Chore, which recommended “polycarbonate protective eyewear” for anyone mowing — or in the vicinity.

From high school A’s to college F’s

Kashawn Campbell, a straight A student at an inner-city Los Angeles high school, went to Berkeley with a great attitude, a great work ethic, lots of “grit” — and weak reading and writing skills, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Raised by a single mother who works as a security guard, Campbell grew up with little exposure to the world outside his neighborhood other than watching Jeopardy. Although Berkeley felt like a “different world,” he embraced it enthusiastically.

He filled his dorm room with Cal posters, and wore clothes emblazoned with the school’s name. Each morning the gawky, bone-thin teen energetically reminded his dorm mates to “have a Caltastic day!”

But he was shocked by the academic expectations.

At Jefferson, a long essay took a page and perfect grades came after an hour of study a night.

At Cal, he was among the hardest workers in the dorm, but he could barely keep afloat.

Seeking help, he went at least once a week to the office of his writing instructor, Verda Delp.

The more she saw him, the more she worried. His writing often didn’t make sense. He struggled to comprehend the readings for her class and think critically about the text.

“It took awhile for him to understand there was a problem,” Delp said. “He could not believe that he needed more skills. He would revise his papers and each time he would turn his work back in having complicated it. The paper would be full of words he thought were academic, writing the way he thought a college student should write, using big words he didn’t have command of.”

Campbell chose to live with other black first-year students in the African-American Theme Program, two floors in a dorm. He became close friends with roommate Spencer Simpson, who was earning A’s in challenging classes at Berkeley.

Like Campbell, Simpson had been raised by a single mother in a tough neighborhood and earned straight A’s at low-performing schools. Both were nerds who “didn’t try to act tough” and were “shy around girls.” But there were differences.

Spencer’s mother, a medical administrator, had graduated from UCLA and exposed her only child to art, politics, literature and the world beyond Inglewood. If a bookstore was going out of business, she’d drive Spencer to the closeout sale and they would buy discounted novels. She pushed him to participate in a mostly white Boy Scout troop in Westchester.

To Spencer, Berkeley was the first place he could feel fully comfortable being intellectual and black, the first place he could openly admit he liked folk music and punk rock.

Campbell coped with depression, kept working, joined study groups and — with an A in African American Studies — raised his GPA above 2.0. But he got an incomplete in the writing class on his second try. He’ll be back for a second year.

CDC: 1 in 5 kids has a mental disorder

Nearly 1 in 5 children in the U.S. suffers from a mental disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That includes attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, depression and autism.

Kids who once would have been called antsy, shy, moody or odd are now being diagnosed with mental disorders and disabilities. How many really need mental health care? The bill is up to $247 billion a year, the CDC estimates.

Pushing drugs in school

Diagnosed as hyperactive in first grade, Ted Gup’s son was prescribed Ritalin and Adderall, Gup writes in the New York Times.

In another age, David might have been called “rambunctious.” His battery was a little too large for his body. And so he would leap over the couch, spring to reach the ceiling and show an exuberance for life that came in brilliant microbursts.

When he was older, he sold his Adderall to classmates, who saw it as a performance-enhancing drug.

As a 21-year-old college senior, he was found on the floor of his room, dead from a fatal mix of alcohol and drugs.

“I had unknowingly colluded with a system that devalues talking therapy and rushes to medicate, inadvertently sending a message that self-medication, too, is perfectly acceptable,” writes the grieving father.

Now psychiatrists have defined grief as depression, which “runs the very real risk of delegitimizing that which is most human — the bonds of our love and attachment to one another.”  Gup does not plan to take a pill to dull his grief for his son.

Study: Computer game helps depressed teens

Depressed teenagers who played a computer game improved as much as those who met with a counselor, concludes a University of Auckland study in the British Medical Journal. Teens played an interactive 3-D fantasy game called SPARX. Their “avatar has to learn to deal with anger and hurt feelings and swap negative thoughts for helpful ones.”

. . . 44 percent of the SPARX group who carried out at least four of the seven challenges recovered completely. In the conventional treatment group, only 26 percent recovered fully.

“Use of the programme resulted in a clinically significant reduction in depression, anxiety and hopelessness, and an improvement in quality of life,” according to the study led by Sally Merry, an associate professor at the Department of Psychological Medicine.

The adolescents also said they liked being able to play SPARX at home at their own pace.

Reading, ‘riting and wellness

Fifteen San Francisco high schools offer a wellness center where students can discuss depression, anger, anxiety, addiction or just stress.

In a recent districtwide survey of teachers who had referred students to Wellness Centers, three-quarters reported greater academic success. Eighty-six percent said they noticed that the students had improved emotional well-being.

“Our No. 1 need is more mental health clinicians,” said Jessica Stein Colvin, who runs the wellness center at Galilieo High. “There is mental health therapy happening here all the time. Every single clinical space is used every hour of the day.”

Rahsaan, a 17-year-old a senior at Galileo, broke up with his girlfriend last year. He is estranged from his parents and siblings — he has lived in the Bayview district with his disabled grandfather, whom he has cared for for more than 10 years.

Last semester, he said, his grades plummeted when he hit an emotional wall.

“I was outside and one of the teachers saw me crying and they brought me down here,” Rahsaan said. “Jessica and the other teacher stayed here after school to make sure I wasn’t going to harm myself or anything. It helped me a lot because I was, like, literally going to kick somebody’s ass and not care about the consequences.”

The wellness centers were started after the Columbine massacre, when many schools were trying to reach troubled teenagers. “We took an approach that was particular to random acts of violence and decided to go broad and provide a spectrum of services so we could reach as many students as possible,” said Kevin Gogin, director of School Health Programs.

Doctors warn of ‘Facebook depression’

Depression-prone teens can feel even worse when they see that classmates have lots of “friends,” activities and “photos of happy-looking people having great times,” pediatricians warn.

“It’s like a big popularity contest — who can get the most friend requests or get the most pictures tagged,” said Abby Abolt, 16, a Chicago high school sophomore and frequent Facebook user.

Closed little worlds

American students are depressed, lazy and not learning very much, writes John Tierney on James Fallows’ Atlantic blog.  Tierney cites a raft of recent studies as well as years of experience as a college professor and now as a high school teacher.

I teach at an “elite” (effete?) independent school for girls in the Boston area. . . . Some of the students I teach work really hard.

. . . But, my sense is that most of the students at this school spend enormous amounts of time watching television, checking out Facebook, and otherwise engaging in totally unproductive activity. They certainly don’t read anything! In fact, I would say that the number one problem in contemporary American education is that students do not read enough. Their reading comprehension is horrible. Their vocabularies are impoverished. They cannot talk about anything outside their own closed little worlds.

In a follow-up, Tierney quotes an e-mail from a “beloved and prominent professor at a small liberal-arts college in New England,” who writes:

You know, I have a special place in my heart for our [Asian] students, who exhibit few of the troublesome traits you lament. The American students are nice kids, and I like them, but I don’t respect them. I guess that’s the thing.

There are intellectually curious, well-read and hard-working students out there, Tierney concedes. But he doesn’t think they’re the norm.

Away from home, Asian students slide

Asian-American students’ grades slide in their first year of college — unless they live at home — concludes a study at University of California at Irvine, where Asian-American students outnumber whites. White students’ grades dropped slightly, compared to their 12th-grade GPA, while Asians’ grades fell dramatically in both natural and social sciences, according to University of Denver psychologist Julia Dmitrieva. From Miller McCune:

. . .  when Esther Chang studied 120 white and 395 Asian-American undergraduates at a large public university in California, she found that while the white students’ GPAs averaged 3.21, all the Asian-American groups’ GPAs were significantly lower — 3.04 for East Asian, 2.99 for Southeast Asians and 2.94 for Filipinos.

The Asian-American students studied less, went to the library and to class less than the white students, says Chang. She and Dmitrieva speculate that Asian-American parents’ involvement in their children’s out-of-school activities leaves the kids unprepared to manage their time in college. Dmitrieva’s study supports that hypothesis, since the grades of that Asian-American freshman who still lived at home, or scored well on a test measuring academic perseverance and diligence, didn’t drop any more than those of the white students.

Dorothy Chin, associate research psychologist at UCLA’S Semel Institute, believes further research will show Asian-American students “find a way to self-regulate and bounce back” by senior year. Graduation rates are strong for Asian-American students.

Also on Miller McCune:

What looks like pushy, high-pressure parenting to Westerners is seen as loving by Asian-American children, says Ruth Chao, a University of California, Riverside, psychologist.

Studies have found that parental behavior that feels controlling to North American and German children feels warm and accepting to Japanese and Korean children.

. . . Western cultures value individuality and independence highly, so Western teenagers feel rejected when their parents exert a great deal of control, explains Gisela Tromssdorff of the Technical University in Aachen, Germany. On the other hand, she writes, “Japanese adolescents … feel rejected by their parents when they experience only little control.”

Asian-American children don’t report more stress, anxiety or depression than white children — until they reach college. Asian-American college students have the highest suicide rate of any ethnicity.

I wonder if that’s also true for Asian-American college students who live at home.

‘Tiger’ kids in community college

Chinese “tiger mothers,” who demand excellence from their children, are superior to Western moms, claims Amy Chua, a Yale law professor with two high-performing daughters.  More tiger children end up at community colleges than the Ivy League, writes a Pasadena Community College professor. And these kids are depressed by their failure to meet their parents’ unreasonable expectations. Some are suicidal.

Also on Community College Spotlight:  Laid-off workers in Iowa are turning to community colleges for retraining, but wait lists are long for programs in health care, welding and other high-demand fields.