Tuesday was nice. After rain soaked all the sports fields rendering them useless, the sky cleared and the kids had nothing to do but play. Play turned into a nine person wiffle ball game in the backyard, with two lovely little lady cheerleaders.
Wiffle ball turned into basketball, which turned into a little Xbox, which turned into an outside Nerf battle, that for a moment, I thought might never come to fruition because the boys couldn’t stop arguing over guns.
I stayed out of it.
Sometimes, these things can get ugly. Kids hurl insults, argue, yell, and sometimes, they even come to blows, but on Tuesday, besides the normal jostling for the best gun and team captain, everything worked itself out.
Recently, my friend sent me an article entitled The Overprotected Kid, a moniker which applies to almost every kid I know, including my own. Set against the back drop of a park called the The Land, the article discusses the detrimental effects that the loss of free play can have on children’s lives. That in losing free play where children rule, not parents, we are robbing our children of the opportunity to develop important social and interpersonal skills, as well as confidence and creativity.
I’m a big believer in unstructured free play, and have been for a while now, especially since moving to this neighborhood where so many kids abound. I’ve learned that as a rule, the fights, which are frequent but usually mild, seem to be resolved more easily and quickly when parents don’t get involved. But, not getting involved, especially when it’s your child who is in the wrong or is the one being wronged, is not always easy.
However, on Tuesday, with the article fresh in my mind, I made a conscious effort to stay out of the great gun debate, which took a lot of effort, since it was my younger son who was not sharing with the one boy who was not a part of the neighborhood, but an invited guest of my older son.
Eventually, they worked it out, or at least got tired of fighting.
Once they cleared the gun hurdle and headed outside, I stayed inside, listening from an open window, while on my laptop, but only because I was responsible for the invited guest.
It was then that I heard the question, “What should we do once we get shot?”
It was a simple question with profound implications. The boys had decided to play a game but had no rules and no way to win. A quick discussion ensued, rules were made, and the game resumed. It was at that moment that I was truly struck by the value of unsupervised play. The boys had become decision makers.
It is amazing to me that something taken for granted by so many of us, free, unsupervised play, is such an important part of molding children into responsible, emotionally capable adults. Children need to have these interactions. They need to learn to make decisions of very little value, like the rules of zombie Nerf, so that they can effectively make very important decisions later on in life. They need to learn how to deal with difficult personalities (like, ahem, the boy who would not share), and they need to learn that when they stick to their convictions whether right or wrong, (also the boy who would not share) that sometimes there are rewards and sometimes, there are consequences.
It is through play that the peacemakers, the rule makers and followers, the teachers, planners, and the leaders emerge. It is how we learn about ourselves and how we learn about each other.
How could we have let something so easy, yet, so vital, slowly fade from childhood?
Gone are the days when kids would leave the house for hours on end. I’m sure your parents weren’t privy to your every interaction throughout the day or even know specifically, where you were. Yet, today, you’d surely be called irresponsible if you did not know your child’s whereabouts at any given moment. We’ve seem to forgotten about the freedom that the neighborhood can afford. Or, we’re scared to give our kids the same freedom we had, which is a whole other topic. We’ve seem to forgotten that arguing over toys, treating others and being treated unfairly, and loud games, that sometimes got a little rough are all a part of childhood. Yet, we try to protect our children from these same scenarios, that may have sucked, but taught us resilience.
As hard as it was for me not to walk downstairs that day and demand that my son share, I believe he learned something from digging his heels in, and I think I learned something about him, too. For the first time, I saw that my son’s unwillingness to bend isn’t always a bad thing. As a mother, not sharing is not a quality that I would encourage and even makes me cringe. But as an observer, I saw a boy who was strong enough to stand up to a much older and larger boy who was relentless in his pursuit of my son’s Nerf gun. But, my son would not be bullied into doing something he just didn’t want to do and I don’t know if that is necessarily a bad thing.
What I do know is that the trend needs to change for our children. Playgrounds where teachers run games and officiate, endless organized activities, parents running outside to make sure little Johnny is getting his fair share, the sentiment is nice, but it’s wrong. Life is not smooth sailing, people are not always nice, we don’t always get our way, and sometimes, we are flat out just wronged by others. But most of us don’t crumble when we encounter rough seas. Instead, we have the confidence to navigate those waters, and that confidence comes from experience. Let’s give our children that same experience.