As a nine year old (back in 1984), my neighbors and I spent a ridiculous amount of time playing “overboard.” In this game, we sat on a wooden fence. One of us feigned a fall to the grass, and then the others used a jump rope to pull the “drowning” child back onto the boat/fence. Once that time of make-believe had expired in its amusement, we ran to the woods behind our houses. We congregated at the top of the big dirt hill to take turns sliding to the bottom. We often picked up cuts and bruises as trophies along the way. Other days, we hopped on our bikes and rode to the elementary school playground or several blocks away to the house of the girl who had that cool laser disc player so that we could watch Grease again.
Do you know who was not usually with us? Our parents. I remember my mom as being a background figure for much of my childhood playtime. And I am thankful for that. She always kept the Kool Aid ready for any number of kids who ran through our house for a hydration break in the middle of summer play. If we got hurt, she was there with a hug and to bandage the wound. But, she was not there among the neighborhood kids in the middle of our games and our adventures and our inevitable fights.
This is not to say my mother did not spend time with us. I have wonderful memories of the times she surprised me with a picnic halfway through my walk home from school. She created scavenger hunts for my friends when we wanted something different to do on a rainy day. She taught my siblings and me how to play piano and a love for books and learning. But she wasn’t our constant playmate and mediator.
It seems that kids today are missing out on important time for unstructured play. Adults supervise or negotiate every aspect of their encounters. They need time to explore and problem solve and take small steps of independence. Playdates are scheduled with planned activities and parents hanging out nearby. The popularity of organized sports at a younger age means that kids no longer gather in neighborhood yards to pick teams, establish rules, and work out disagreements on their own. Our children participate in countless activities to keep them busy or give them a leg up in our competitive world. I wonder if kids even slide down that awesome dirt hill near my childhood home anymore.
Why the change? I believe the 24-hour news cycle and social media do an impressive job of convincing us (incorrectly) that we live in a more dangerous world than the one we enjoyed as kids. We imagine there are predators waiting behind every building to snatch our kids. We believe we must keep our kids scheduled and supervised and safe. I also think that, due to more single-parent homes (like mine) or homes in which both parents are working, the group of moms serving as a safety net is reduced or lacking. Finally, it seems we just don’t know our neighbors anymore. Technology and busy schedules have isolated us from one another. The result? The freedom of our kids to feel safe as they roam and play has diminished. And in that, they lose something precious.
How is play for your children different than when you were growing up?