We all know that play is the work of children.
If that is not already a given for you then you need to read THIS. And THIS. And watch THIS. And the many, many more studies and articles that point out the importance of play for kids and why we are causing serious damage by not giving them the time and space they need to just play. With other kids. Of all ages. Without extreme supervision. Like we did. When we were young.
It’s so simple. And yet, I am discovering it’s SO HARD to just let it happen.
It shouldn’t be so hard.
The neighbourhood kids have disappeared. They are busy at after school activities. And they are inside because their parents can’t come out front with them right now (and they aren’t allowed to go on their own). Play has become too organised. Text messages between parents setting up times and places. Park meet ups and scheduled play dates.
When I wax nostalgic and think about my childhood I remember what my street looked like after school. Probably a lot like yours did. There were kids. Big kids and young kids. Sisters and brothers. Bicycles and skateboards. Hockey sticks and soccer balls.
And somehow, we would very simply just find each other. My mom never called anyone to see if they could play with me. She didn’t organise meeting up with other kids at the park. We just went outside and there would be other kids out there. Or if there weren’t then we would knock on doors until we found someone. The two block radius around my house gave me almost all of my playmates until I was 11 years old. The parents in the neighbourhood would keep a collective eye on us without ever hovering. If someone got hurt we would go find an adult.
I think I was pretty typical of the kids growing up 30 years ago. I took piano lessons and a dance class for awhile but most of my after school afternoons were free. And my weekends too. Sometimes I watched TV but most of the time I played with neighbourhood kids. That was just a normal day.
I recently read this article and while the degree of risk described here may be beyond my comfort level, the concept of creating “playbourhoods” rings as very necessary to me in this isolationist era we live in.
We moved recently and our neighbourhood is full of kids but it’s taking us months to meet them. And this is a neighbourhood with a real sense of community already here. But no one ventures out front. I haven’t seen any kids playing on the street and the kids who walk by are almost always with their parents. My daughter is only 5 so I may not actually send her out front on her own to play quite yet but she’s not far off.
So where are all the 8 year olds, 9, 10, 11 and 12 year olds? Not to mention the 5, 6 and 7 year olds. Predetermined activities and after school care are where you will find most of them.
We haven’t got all the answers on how to create our own playbourhood but the things we are trying so far:
1. Being a presence outside. Particularly on the street, rather than the backyard. We may even put a picnic table out front next summer and eat meals there.
2. Making an effort to meet our neighbours.
3. Letting our 5 year old just go knock and see if her friends can come play rather than having to send a message first.
I’m sure there are many neighbourhoods in the world where the kids are still out playing, but I think there are too many like mine…where kids are too busy with organised activities, where a little mud and a little rain keeps people indoors far too often.
The biggest thing we need to do is get out of our kids’ way and give them their time back. It’s important to remember it’s THEIR time, it’s their childhood.
We unschool and one of the big perks is that we are never short on unscheduled time. My daughter attends a dance class and gymnastics class. If she were also in full time school, this would be too much structured time. Unschooling obviously isn’t a solution for everyone, and it comes with its own struggles, but rethinking how we appropriate our kids’ free time is an important conversation to have.
An easy place to start is to really think about whether your kids love their activities. Do they happily go or is it a battle to get them there? If it’s a battle then why are you having it? What about homework? Have you considered ‘saying no to homework‘ to open up more free time? If my kids ever go to regular school we will absolutely be opting out of homework. How about risk? Do you invite risk into their lives? The degree of risk each of us is comfortable with will vary greatly but at some point, at some age it needs to be ok for them to go knock on their friend’s door, maybe walk home from school on their own or with other kids. We need to trust them. And trust that the world is not a horrible place even though horrible things happen.
And then we just need to get out of their way.
Kids know how to play. All mammals play. Play is how we learn. I often wonder how many kids are put in multiple activities and after-school tutoring in the name of ‘real learning’ when really all they need is the OK to venture out front.
Playgrounds are fine but going to the park isn’t really necessary. Green spaces, patches of dirt, puddles, trees…kids can play anywhere. One of our go-to spots growing up was the ditch at the end of our street. Have you noticed how kids truly playing at a playground aren’t using it the way it was intended. They are creating worlds using the structures. They are climbing mountains by climbing the slide (and please, please just let them climb the slide). They use what’s around them to create their play, whether that is man made structures or a pile of sticks.
There are a few simple ways to help your child engage in real play (notice that it’s not our kids who need help learning to play, it’s ourselves who need to do the work):
1. Loosen your grip on the family schedule. Extra curricular activities don’t need to fill the calendar.
2. Let them get messy. Don’t shame them for getting their clothes dirty or their shoes wet. Embrace mud. If you care about the clothes they are getting dirty then they are wearing the wrong clothes.
3. Remember that playmates don’t (and shouldn’t) need to be the same age as your child. Mixed age play is much more beneficial to everyone involved.
4. Get out of their way and get out of their play.
To elaborate on my last point just listen the next time you go to the playground. Parents voices ring out with suggestions of what their kids can do:
“Why don’t you go down the slide?”
“Have you tried climbing those bars over there?”
“You should build something in the sand!”
On and on it goes. Not to mention the cacophony of ‘good jobs‘ and ‘stop that nows‘ that fill the park airwaves. It’s too much. Too much input, all the time. Just leave them be. Let them explore and be in the moment, because they are experts at being in the moment if we aren’t always trying to pull them out of it to take a picture or point something out to them.
Shhhh. Be still. Take a few moments for yourself to meditate or just be.
Our kids know how to engage with the world in messy, simple, imaginative ways if we can just step back, schedule less and be outside more. If we can embrace messes and simply just stop talking. If we just step back even a little bit, maybe the kids will come back.