Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Rush Hour Crush: Staying to the Right and Other Playground Rules

Let's go back to our childhood today. There are certain things we learn on the playground when we're kids that are essential to our social development. For example, we learn that sharing is a great way to make friends. We learn how to identify and manage (and sometimes even avoid) bullies. We learn that sometimes things get messy—and that it's okay when they do, even if we're wearing our Sunday best. In essence, we learn important social principles that guide our interactions with others throughout our adult lives. 

These types of interactions teach us about order in the world. In school we learn to pass on the right. Think back, how many of you remember being told to stay to the right while passing in the hallways or on the stairs? If you went to school in the US, it should have been something you started doing in Kindergarten. And it's a practice that extends beyond the walls of the academy: We pass on the right on the roads and we tend to stay to the right on sidewalks. It's our way of ordering movement in our world. The things we learn on the playground—these life strategies—aren't concrete rules. There aren't any "playground police" who'll swoop in if you don't want to share with your cubicle mate later in life, but these "rules" provide us with tools for problem-solving and for physically navigating our world. What's more, because we learn these rules on the playground, which we all theoretically experience in some form when we are children (whether it takes the shape of the schoolyard or a classroom or an actual playground), they are shared ideas. So we all know and accept on some level certain strategies (i.e., social norms).

During the evening rush hour in New York City, this code breaks down. In particular, the "lanes" of travel seem to disintegrate altogether. People swarm in all of directions. There is no right, there is no left, there are just multiple streams of people all trying to get somewhere, all at once. It's the rush hour crush.  Anyone present at Penn Station at 5:30 pm should have a sense of what I'm talking about.

Image Top: Note individuals walking toward the camera on both right and left of woman in center of the picture.

Image Bottom: Penn Station, NY. Rush hour crowd streaming down both sides of the staircases. Imagine trying to fight that flow so you can get up to the platform!

I want to make clear that I have nothing against thinking against the grain. Thinking outside of accepted patterns challenges us to keep moving forward. However, it's not contrary thoughts that I am concerned with here. I fully accept that there's at least one kid in class who eats glue, and will probably grow up to invent something invaluable to daily life and make millions. What I am talking about are the ways we learn to physically navigate our world. Even the kid who eats glue will walk on the right side of the hall.
The loss of order I'm discussing is not limited to the flow of bodies. It's also present in how people choose to interact with one another. For example, logically speaking, people waiting to board a subway car should let those exiting the car leave first. This creates space for the newcomers. Logical, right? During rush hour, chaos reigns as bodies collide entering and exiting the cars—at the same time! It's a wonder we manage to get anywhere at all!

Image: Subway car entering the station. (I'm surprised the transit police didn't nab me for this shot.)

How can we understand this loss of order and the abandonment of social "rules"? Perhaps it has something to do with the loss of free play. The American Academy of Pediatrics and Scientific American report that free play is important to our development. In fact the lead into the article from Scientific American states:

"Free, imaginative play is crucial for normal social, emotional and cognitive development. It makes us better adjusted, smarter and less stressed."

One of the points of the Scientific American article makes is that children need to interact freely—that is, without parental supervision—with peers in order to learn social competencies (i.e., what is socially acceptable and what is not). Children will not learn these skills under constant supervision because these are not natural situations. Anyone who has ever been on a job interview can surely understand this point: you know you're being watched and so you're on your best behavior. During the job interview, you probably won't make inappropriate jokes or sly comments—these may come after you've landed the position and gotten to know your coworkers rather well (and you're sure that it won't get you fired).

There has been a trend of moving away from the playground though, and subsequently, moving away from free play. What effects will over-scheduling and helicopter parenting styles have on social development? If we move farther away from the playground—or keep children away from it entirely—will we see the demise of social understanding? How will the ordering of our world change? After all, how else are we to learn about cliques, that it's not okay to eat sand from the sandbox, and most importantly, that mom and dad won't always be there to make others play with us? Free play helps us accept others into our space, and it also teaches us how to negotiate our place and presence. Organized sports are great. They encourage teamwork, a healthy sense of competition, and teach kids about sportsmanship (unless your kid is being coached by someone using the experience to relive his or her own lost dreams). But in today's world, organized sports for kids have taken on a false sense of fairness. This is a disservice because not everyone is equal, and there will be some who are more successful than others. People do have a right to claim a space for themselves, which is precisely what we learn on the playground. The idea that we are all entitled, however, is misguided. We do not possess equal skills. What the playground teaches us is how to position ourselves into and within the social fabric using the skills we do possess. We learn how to secure a spot at the sandbox or how to get a place in line for the slide, and we do it without having someone interject on our behalf. We learn when to step back and to assess our environment. Years later, when negotiating a crowded subway car, we draw on these skills, and don't just assume that because we are on the platform waiting for the subway, that we should fight our way into a crowded subway car or flood the stairs. Years later, we can survey and assess our situation. We learn finesse.

Image: Subway car bound uptown. Time approx. 5:15 pm.

If we lose the skills the playground teaches us—the tools for navigating life and our world—do we lose our contextual sense? Can the rush hour crush and its related behaviors be understood as an outgrowth of a loss of socialness? Perhaps it's time to return to the playground. Go ahead, go down the slide, have someone push you on a swing, and play in the sandbox. Reconnect. Get a little dirty—it's okay. Really. Place yourself in the world again. You may find that you can navigate the rush hour crush a little easier.

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