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Free the Children


There’s a small playground in Albany bedecked with some of the funniest spelling-challenged graffiti I’ve seen in a long time. Just about every piece of play equipment reads somewhere “Worriers.”

Chris Mercogliano, recently retired director of the Albany Free School and author of the new book In Defense of Childhood: Protecting Kids’ Inner Wildness, would probably find this to be not only a sign of some youthful warriors’ need for a dictionary, but also an apt description of most of society when it comes to playgrounds, children’s play in general, and really all of childhood. Witness the article in my CDPHP Focus on Health newsletter that arrived as I was finishing up Mercogliano’s book, which intones, “Most playground injuries occur because of lack of supervision. Kids who are bored with using the equipment the right way can find other and more dangerous ways to use it.” What they don’t explain is how constant supervision would keep kids from getting bored.

It won’t, says Mercogliano. But it might make them depressed. Mercogliano’s fourth book is of a more ambitious scope than his previous three, which tended to rely quite heavily on specific stories from the Free School (although Teaching the Restless had a good bit of background research in it too). His thesis is roughly this: that a combination of forces—schedules packed full of adult-supervised activities; huge amounts of schooling that resembles testing boot-camp; lack of time outside, in nature, or alone; the disappearance of any real paid work kids can do; and the dominance of electronic media—is “domesticating” childhood. The result? Kids’ self-determination and autonomy is essentially being crippled. When they get to their 20s and are faced with some life challenge they’re expected to figure out on their own, they just don’t know how.

Mercogliano prescribes contact with nature, solitude, a chance to learn to work stuff on their own, and not insulating kids from every single little risk. It’s a tough message in a world that believes there’s a violent pedophile behind every bush and wants babies’ lullabies to do double duty as IQ-enhancers.

Mercogliano knows he’s got a tough sell. About to begin a national book tour—which he booked primarily on his own—Mercogliano recounts how the associate director of one very chichi private school in Marin County, Calif., was excited to have him come speak but had to check with the director, who was on vacation. A few weeks later he got a curt e-mail message from the director saying, “You don’t fit into our parent education plans for the year.” He chuckled. “I think she must have read the book.” He’s not surprised, but seems a little wistful for what the conversations might have been like with a demographic that’s the epicenter of overmanagement.

He’s also hopeful that his timing is right, as people are starting, separately, to talk about most of the different trends that he links together as one whole. “People are starting to notice,” he says. “We have issues like childhood obesity facilitating the growing awareness. That’s one so clear—over 20 percent of American children are dangerously fat. Fat enough to get type 2 diabetes. Children never used to get that. Why are they getting fat? A culture of childhood where they no longer go outside, just sit in front of screens.”

“We have to become more aware of the price involved,” he continues. “It’s paradoxical. How can there be a price to safety, to keeping your kids safe? It’s not easy because it’s so counterintuitive. Still, there is a price. Some of us have to do the work of pointing that out to people.”

Mercogliano will be gone for two months, talking at colleges, small alternative schools, and on local radio stations. It’ll go the way non-celebrity book tours go these days: self-promoting, staying with acquaintances. And in this case, fueling up the car, which runs on grease, at various restaurants along the way. (He had to call ahead to find some, since apparently out West biodiesel and animal feed companies are starting to buy up waste oil.) With the help of Beacon Press’s publicist Mercogliano has gotten his foot in the door at a couple of choice places, including Washington, D.C.’s Politics and Prose bookstore, where he is, by his own account, the only unknown author on their daily roster for months.

At his local book party at Troy’s Market Block Book’s last Friday (Sept. 14), Mercogliano sat calmly inscribing lengthy (for a book signing at least) messages into copies of In Defense of Childhood for parents of children in utero through their teens as kids nursed, toddled up and down the store’s internal ramp, never quite got the tablecloth off the refreshments table, and begged for books on motorcycles. “It’s the Italian in me,” he explained. “You get a chance to give a blessing. . . .”

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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