Skip to content Skip to footer

When Play Is Criminalized: Racial Disparities in Childhood

Racial disparities in the way children are allowed to play denies many Black kids an important childhood right.

Racial disparities in the way children are allowed to play denies many Black kids an important childhood right. (Photo: Stefano Brivio / Flickr)

Truthout is your go-to source for news about the most critical issues of our time. If you want to see more stories like this one, make a tax-deductible donation today!

A significant segment of the child-age population in the United States is effectively denied one of the most important rights of childhood: free play. The trend away from unstructured play can have deleterious effects on the cognitive, social and emotional development of affected children. Because of disparities in opportunities for physical activity at school, the semi-privatization of public space, and the criminalization of Black and Brown bodies in motion, children of color, especially those of low socio-economic status, too often miss this essential requirement for healthy childhood development.

According to Diane Barnes, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) in private practice in New York City, “both children and adolescents require at least 60 minutes or more per day” of physical activity. “Their activities,” Barnes says, “are obviously different. While young children are running around the playground, older kids are more likely to be engaged in exercise that is related to a sport such as football or soccer.”

It is the “running around” — the uninhibited activity — that is so crucial to cognitive, social and emotional childhood development. “Free play should be imaginative and self-directed,” says Barnes. “The ideas should come from within. Dance classes and soccer classes do not count as free play.” Indeed, even school physical education classes, while important to overall wellness and an essential component of a balanced, healthy education, don’t count as free play. “While it would be wonderful to increase PE,” Barnes says, “PE should not be mistaken as free play because it is not. It is not only necessary for children to have the room to play, but this play needs to be free play and not under the microscope of teachers or other professionals.”

The Importance of Free Play

Indeed, a growing body of research proves the influence of play on children is overwhelmingly positive, as it leads to greater academic achievement and better executive function . Free play looks less like PE and more like recess — or at least like recess time as memorialized in the well of the American imagination. Images of children goofing off, climbing, leaping, falling and even bruising with wild abandon populate the collective consciousness of our past.

However, despite the efforts of movements like Free-Range Kids , American children rarely move independently, without the watchful gaze of adults who monitor their every movement. This hypervigilant eye is watchful even when older school-aged children play in their own neighborhoods. For children who are Black and Brown, this adult gaze — in the form of surveillance by both police and school authorities — often criminalizes their young bodies. Sufficient research reveals the tremendous racial disparities in disciplinary responses to children’s behavior in schools and in communities.

An issue brief published by the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity found that,

African American students, and especially African American boys, are disciplined more often and receive more out-of-school suspensions and expulsions than White students. Perhaps more alarming is the 2010 finding that over 70% of the students involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement were Hispanic or Black. A 2009-2010 survey of 72,000 schools (kindergarten through high school) shows that while Black students made up only 18 percent of those enrolled in the schools sampled, they accounted for 35 percent of those suspended once, 46 percent of those suspended more than once and 39 percent of all expulsions. Over all, Black students were three and a half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their White peers.

These disparities seem to suggest an inherent deviance present in Black children, a deviance that requires punitive responses to maintain order. However, Black children are more likely to be suspended from school than their white peers even when the “offense” in question is the same. Indeed, a survey of the literature published by The Equity Project at Indiana University determined that, “Research has failed to support the common perception that racial and ethnic disparities in school discipline stem from issues of poverty and increased misbehavior among students of color.” Disproportionate surveillance and punishment of Black children, regardless of socioeconomic class, also manifest outside of school buildings.

People of color are more likely to be stopped by police while driving, are more likely to be detained by police when charged with felonies than “comparably situated” whites, and are more likely to go to prison. These stark realities endure in the public perception of Black and Brown bodies, even when those bodies belong to children. Black and Latino teens are more likely to be stopped and frisked by police than their white counterparts. This mistreatment is at least partially rooted in an implicit bias that strips Black children of their innocence. The American Psychological Association has found that “Black boys as young as 10 may not be viewed in the same light of childhood innocence as their white peers, but are instead more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime.” Black parents know these facts, even when they are unaware of the research and statistics behind them. And of course, these realities mean that Black and Brown children’s right to free play is significantly infringed.

Reilly Bergin Wilson is well-versed in the facts behind this infringement. Wilson is a National Science Foundation graduate research fellow in the Environmental Psychology Doctoral Program at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY), and a former Fulbright Fellow. She is also a research associate for the Children’s Environments Research Group at The Center for Human Environments and a board chair at play:groundNYC .

“At several of our events, I have spoken with African American parents and grandparents who specifically talked about frustrations with the harsh discipline that their children face in schools,” Wilson says. “Indeed, one mother that I had a lengthy conversation with last year at our Governors Island event had become so distraught with school disciplinary procedures that she had chosen to homeschool her son. While I was not surprised by this, having followed this trend in critical urban education literature and in the news, it is still heartbreaking to watch a young child play intently, building a world I could never have imagined out of cardboard and duct tape and string, while his mother tells you that he was repeatedly suspended for ‘talking back’ to a teacher. That mother made an extremely difficult life decision to protect her son, but one that is not an option for many families. I can’t imagine what it feels like to be a parent and have to send your child every day to a place where he or she is chastised and degraded.”

The Relevance of Adventure Playgrounds to Children of Color

Black and Brown children’s bodies are so heavily policed that the state of being a child of color in America can feel like a kind of occupation. This occupation of the child inhibits free play. According to Wilson, the war-time conditions that inspired the adventure playground movement when it originated in Denmark, approximate the conditions Black caregivers face today. While most American playgrounds contain permanent structures, like swings and slides, which were built according to very strict, very adult guidelines, in adventure playgrounds, or “junk playgrounds,” children use wood, old tires, tape and other materials to build play environments they can tear down and build again according to their own imaginative visions.

The first adventure playground was produced by a Workers Cooperative Housing Association in Emdrupvej, Denmark, during the 1940s German occupation of that country. Parents needed solutions to shield young people from the occupying forces as they engaged in everyday play activities. Parents feared that “their children’s play might be mistaken for acts of sabotage by soldiers,” Wilson explains. Rather than roam and play as children have done through time everywhere in the world, in Denmark and later, in blitzed neighborhoods throughout England, war-weary children turned to adventure playgrounds, which offered safe spaces to engage in the exuberant bursts of activity and noise-making associated with truly free play.

“Parents of young people of color in the United States often face very similar concerns,” Wilson says, “as their sons and daughters are likely to encounter disproportionate rates of discipline and policing, both in public spaces and inside of school buildings. Black male children in particular are often not afforded the benefit of being perceived as innocent, and behavior that is forgiven of white children is more often interpreted as deviant when exhibited by children of color.”

With Black children facing suspension for wearing their hair in a natural style , handcuffed for showing their friends a science experiment , and physically disciplined for minor infractions, Black parents often fear that free play, and the exuberant expression of freedom uninhibited play engenders, puts their children at risk.

Punitive discipline and the policing of Black children in schools is just one impediment to free play in communities of color. When families wish to encourage free play for their children in schools that don’t suffer from predatory officers and officials, those of low socio-economic status often lack safe spaces in which to do so. Studies published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine and the American Journal of Health Promotion concluded that Black and Brown children and children of a low socio-economic status aren’t even getting access to basic PE, much less the richer experience of free play that Barnes described or the adventure playground model that Wilson works to support.

Defending the Right to Play

In addition to insufficient resources to devote to movement time in schools, emphasis on test scores and other quantitative means of evaluating performance have created what Wilson calls “play-averse schooling regimes.” Even middle-income white families find themselves in the surreal position of having to schedule in free play for their children. For families of low socio-economic status and families of color, inequities in school funding exacerbate the problem of children’s access to free play. Wilson believes that “for play equity to become a reality, schools will need to stop being funded by local property taxes; standardized testing should not determine school budgets; and playworkers [adults who work in adventure playgrounds] should be hired and trained to facilitate recess by providing loose parts and producing material opportunities rather than behavioral directives.”

This call for a fundamental shift in the organization and funding of public schools is not unlike Wilson’s vision of public parks, which she believes are compromised by the fundraising capacities of conservancies and “Friends of” groups in high socio-economic status communities, and “the semi-privatization of public space that helps cement disparities in funding.”

“I think we all need to challenge the revanchist parks funding systems in cities,” Wilson says, using a term rooted in nineteenth-century France, where “revanchists” sought to reinstate the bourgeois order in opposition to the socialist uprising of the Paris Commune.

In the current day, revanchist systems are understood as those that enable more powerful groups in society (such as affluent residents) to regain their territorial domination over less powerful groups (such as homeless people and communities of low socio-economic status) through policies of spatial containment and displacement. Though revanchist groups in high socio-economic status communities are engaged in well-intentioned efforts to reverse the losses parks experience because of city funding, they create a stark imbalance that people not only see but also feel as they move from parks in low-income neighborhoods to parks in high-income neighborhoods.

Wilson envisions greater equity in the disbursement of funds for public spaces and greater local control over the use of those funds received. “We need to demand that parks funding is allocated for labor rather than construction, so that instead of heralding one-million-dollar built-permanent playgrounds, we celebrate grassy lots with lots of material fluidity, where local residents are not only given true control over the projects but also paid a living wage to maintain the space.” Wilson cites California Bay Area’s Pogo Park project as an example of community transformation developed through thoughtful intentionality with regard to where children play.

Money often presents the biggest barrier to providing well-trained playworkers on adventure playgrounds because, as Wilson says, “it is much easier to get money for capital projects, such as building a playground, than for ongoing labor costs.” Wilson says advocates for adventure play opportunities, such as Providence PlayCorps, which “hires and trains local residents to be playworkers in existing public parks, are already addressing these issues in their on-the-ground work.” But regardless, she says, “the reality remains that the production of adventure play opportunities is labor intensive, and the largest impediment to providing them in a sustained program is funding for playworker salaries.”

While Wilson recognizes money as an impediment to free play opportunities for children of color and low socio-economic status, she also advocates for greater intentionality with regard to the human interactions that occur in public parks. “I would really like to entreat white adults to force themselves to be aware of how they might be unconsciously biased against children of color, particularly black children, in terms of how they interpret their play behaviors and motivations, whether they smile at them as readily as they smile at white children, and whether they proscribe to them all of the sympathies that they lend to children that might look more like themselves,” she says.

The othering white gaze gives cultural permission to law enforcement officers to police children of color. But a shift in the way white adults see Black and Brown children can reduce opportunities for their objectification and criminalization.

It is the human element in the free play movement that presents the biggest area of concern for anyone interested in fairness and equality in the development of young people’s bodies and minds. Too many American children are denied what the UN has identified as a fundamental right of all children everywhere: play. Barnes, who earned her MSW at the University of Connecticut and has two young children of her own, lists isolation, anxiety, lack of appetite or overeating, nervousness, the development of headaches and stomach aches, and depression as the range of possible outcomes when children aren’t given opportunities for free play.

Is it fair to link children’s emotional health, mental health and academic outcomes to access to free play? “All the literature,” Barnes insists, “points in this direction.” She says that children who engage in regular free play “have a better awareness of others’ feelings because they interact with others and problem-solve in an organic way. Because it is fun, they tend to be less anxious. It gets them moving, so they tend to be more active and hence healthier adults. Studies show that even 10-minute breaks throughout the day significantly improve learning.”

Childhood is not more precious when it presents in a white body, yet racial disparities in the availability of free play — and permission to engage in it — reinforce the notion that white children are more valuable than Black and Brown children. One way to think about these racial disparities is that denied access to free play among children of color helps concretize the inequities in health and human development that persist across lifetimes. Institutionalized racism in schools, the police state, and even implicit bias in public parks and playgrounds deny Black, Brown and low socio-economic status children the fundamental right to blow dandelions, twirl, laugh out loud, race downhill and, yes, yell and bump and push and struggle — and grow into adulthood secure in the memory of a childhood where they ran free and did play.

Don’t miss your chance to give for #GivingTuesday!

Millions of people are supporting nonprofits like Truthout for #GivingTuesday. Will you join them?

As an independent newsroom, Truthout relies on reader donations to remain online. Your tax-deductible donation of any amount — even a few bucks! — helps make it possible for us to publish award-winning journalism that amplifies the voices of changemakers everywhere.