A few years ago, the psychologist Peter Gray released a fascinating—and sobering—study: Lack of free play in millennials’ overscheduled lives is giving kids anxiety and depression in record numbers. Why? They’re missing what Gray’s generation (and mine) 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.”
What happens when a bunch of anxious kids who don’t know how to get into trouble go to college? A recent trip back to my beloved alma mater, Vassar—combined with my interactions with students where I teach and some disappointing sleuthing—has made it apparent that much of the unstructured free play at college seems to have disappeared in favor of pre-professional anxiety, coupled with the nihilistic, homogeneous partying that exists as its natural counterbalance. The helicopter generation has gone to college, and the results might be tragic for us all.
I certainly noticed a toned-down version of this trend at Vassar, which in my day was where you went to get seriously weird (all right, not Bennington-weird or Hampshire-weird, but weird). A lot about the place was the same—interesting, inquisitive students; dedicated faculty; caring administrators—but it was also dead all weekend! The closest I saw to free play time was, I kid you not, a Quidditch game.