How to Practice Solution Journalism: Part 1
One of the reasons we launched Dowser is because the media over-reports social problems and under-reports potential solutions – and when they do cover solutions, they often do it poorly. Today I’ll look at one issue in particular: journalists who identify superficial conflicts to make their stories appear more balanced, while overlooking the deeper issues at hand.
Case in point: the NY Times‘ recent front page story on Playworks. Playworks is addressing a major national problem: Because parents are afraid to let their kids play unsupervised outdoors, children have limited opportunities to learn play skills – like how to establish and follow the rules of a game, how to solve conflicts, and how to govern impulses in the heat of action. One indication of the problem is that fights and injuries have become prevalent in elementary school yards. Many schools have gone so far as to ban tag. And as many as 40% of school districts have reduced or eliminated recess, often because of behavioral problems.
Kids need recess not just to be active and have fun, but also to learn how to manage their emotions and develop social and team skills.
Low-income kids have it the worst because they are less likely to be enrolled in after school sports leagues or extracurricular activities. So Playworks sends coaches into their schools to teach them how to organize and run games. The coaches show kids what games like four square, kickball and tag look like when played inclusively and respectfully.
The Times article focuses on the superficial conflict of whether today’s children need more “structured” or “unstructured” play time. This is the kind of debate that falls apart on close inspection. In fact, all play is structured. As the philosopher of play Johan Huizinga has observed, all play has binding rules, and if they are transgressed, the play-world collapses.
The question is: Who provides the structure? The kids or the grown ups? In the past, kids learned how to play by watching older kids play. Today, they don’t have opportunities to absorb these life lessons. Our society has changed. And today, kids often need help getting started.
The real question is not: Should we offer kids more structured or unstructured play? But rather, given how fearful we have become about letting kids out of our sight, how do we make sure they keep the culture of play alive? This is a far more complex question than the Times lets on – and a more important one.