I’d see them on my drives into the Loop from my home in Chicago’s Old Town: the empty-eyed children loitering in the entryways of tenement buildings or hanging out in bleak school playgrounds. I couldn’t contain a pang of sorrow. These, I knew, were children who had only known a life that’s hard, children who never learned how to play.
And I wondered. Were my children being deprived of the opportunity to play too?
Yes, I spent money for my two kids to take classes in art, swimming, dance and — sit down for this one — “creative play.” Yet I had the nerve to chuckle at parents who sent their children to Suzuki violin and pre-school computer classes. I mean, what’s the difference? In the end, weren’t all of us scheduling spontaneity and independence out of our kids’ lives?
That lesson was driven home less than a year ago when my job took me and my family to Santa Fe. Sizing up the stacks of boxes in my living room one day after we moved in, I suggested to my kids that they go outside and play. They looked at me in horror. “Alone?” they chorused. In Chicago, they had never been out of eye range of an adult. Like the kids I had seen in the housing projects, life and all its baggage was depriving my kids of the chance to truly experience play, with all the goodness, richness and joy that real play entails.
As a kid growing up in the Midwest, I barely saw my parents. That’s no indictment of their child-rearing commitment or devotion. We had creeks to explore, crawdads to poke, swings to pump skyward, forts to build, rocks to collect. And what was truly astonishing about those times is that we could be outside alone and feel safe. We tasted independence and success.
Our youth was much more democratic. We didn’t have to be the tallest, the strongest or the fastest, although such traits were certainly admired. We didn’t have to throw a baseball through a strike zone or chuck and jive the defense off our soccer offense — although those were feats that could work parental onlookers into a lather.
But we could succeed in other ways: biggest toad caught, highest tree climbed, scariest woods ventured into, most imaginative story dreamed up. Best wasn’t necessarily a matter of feet or seconds. We could succeed in more esoteric ways.
When you think about it, isn’t this what childhood should be about: Setting kids up to succeed? We swam. Ran. Biked. To nowhere. Our parents would call us all in at 10 at night after killer games of Kick the Can. We’d rail at the injustice. “It’s not THAT dark,” we’d plead, pointing to a sky so black it looked like spilled ink.
And yes, my kids swim too . . . but with me looming over them like some specter of doom. “Not too close to the edge,” I harp.
They bike . . . with me breathing down their necks like the posse in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Kick the Can? Something out of the Jurassic era, like Tiddly Winks.
Intellectually, I realize that my parental behavior is a product of the times: People are crazy. Strangers are dangerous. My kids are stuck with me haunting them like a bad cough.
So is it any wonder we’ve seen the Attack of the Little League Parent? Play is no longer just a matter of . . . well, play. With parents hovering around their offspring right through adolescence, play takes on deep meaning — ironically enough, to the adults. Play has become an affirmation of how well a parent has been a parent.
Fathers froth at the mouth if their kid wiffs on a 3-and-1 pitch because, damn it, if the kid can’t succeed in baseball, how can she expect to succeed at anything else. No matter that the child is 6.
Chi-chi preschools won’t consider kids for admission until teachers witness them at play. Reminds me of killers being interrogated on an episode of NYPD Blue.
Kids fall of the balance beam and mother goes ballistic on the coach, forgetting that before the Fall from Grace the kid had executed a move she’d been working on for most of her short lifetime.
Certainly organized sports can be the salvation of kids. But too often, parents in organized sports pull the rug out from under what joy there is in play and saddle a game with meanings that, while not entirely irrelevant, are surely premature. Why can we no longer allow our kids to be kids for a while?
It’s almost enough to make you think the unimaginable and side with an over-paid, under-understated pro athlete like Charles Barkley. Why should he shoulder the responsibility of being a role model, he asks, when parents, the most potent role models of all, have shirked the chore — indeed, have made a mockery of it by childishly throwing tantrums while, more often than not, the child stoically accepts what comes? The strength of kids is truly astounding. My perspective can’t help being a function of my times. Baseball went on strike for last season’s dramatic home stretch. The NBA threatened to follow suit. Ditto the NHL, which lost half a season before resolving the dispute like some game of chicken waged in a meat locker. Our national games are no longer fun but a crash course in Keynesian economics and workman’s comp law. Words like salary caps, arbitration and lockouts have become as much as the vernacular of sports as ERA, icing and tomahawk dunk.
I guess that’s why Michael Jordan makes me smile. He’s a cage-rattler. He did the unthinkable after winning three NBA championships: Sitting perched at the top of his game, the Yahweh of Hoop, he announced basketball wasn’t fun anymore. And he quit.
Then he played baseball, a game he did not quite master but one that brought him joy. And we ridiculed him. We screwed up.
Keep in mind, this is the man who, at the height of his basketball success, extracted a contractual guarantee from the Bulls allowing him to compete in pick-up games of playground hoops despite the danger of injury to a ka-billion dollar career.
Jordan, it seems, remembers what too many of us have forgotten. There is joy in play, if we allow our kids to play.
There are other benefits as well. Scientists who study animals know that play is common among the young of any species. Wolf cubs engage in games of wicked tag; bear cubs like to slide down snowbanks on their rears; young zebras and gazelles run for fun, building stamina for adulthood. Animals who play well survive.
I would argue that the same is true for our kids. Those who play don’t have the idle time that makes them susceptible to the terrifying forces that prey on them: drugs, guns, alcohol, sex, HIV. Kids who play have the advantage of knowing they can pull themselves out of extreme situations, be it reaching for that uppermost tree branch or negotiating Class IV rapids in a kayak.
Play entails something that modern parents, like me, aren’t entirely comfortable with: letting go. Which is the reason, I’m convinced, parents sometimes call me at the children’s magazine where I work to chide me for glorifying play they consider too extreme or dangerous. I tell these parents: If you think a tree or a river is dangerous, take a look into the halls of your child’s school; see what dangers your child’s wayward peers present.
Kids who have been allowed to play, and play well, learn courage, self-reliance and strength. They take charge of their lives — a good trait to possess when it comes to negotiating their worlds. But to return to the earlier questions, have we scheduled play out of our kids? I’m happy to report No. Whew.
That’s why I love my job at Outside Kids Magazine. Every day I talk to kids who are stars in so-called radical sports: skateboarding, snowboarding, mountain biking, boardsailing, hackeysack.
A good many parents endorse these activities. But some don’t. “Skateboarders aren’t wholesome,” these people say. “Snowboarders dye their hair green and cut it in Mohawks.” In fact, most of the kids playing these sports are good kids. Independent. Kind. Mature. Strong. This is play at its most Darwinian. Despite the efforts of adults to interfere, to make sport a drag, play prevails.
While legislative bodies exert more and more control over sports like baseball, soccer and football, I see kids gravitating toward “freer” sports like climbing, hackeysack and kayaking. They excel. They thrive. And they stake their claims to whole new sports, like aggressive in-line skating, skateboarding and snowboarding. They create their own fashions. Their own vocabularies. Their own moves: Ollies, Mutes, Soul Grinds, Endos.
Adults try to control play. Kids take it back.
Nor is all the action on the cutting edge. I’ve listened to kids wax poetic about the joys of shooting freethrows alone on the driveway, the thwap of leather of blacktop. Or throwing a pigskin with the Old Man, watching in glee as it spirals tightly toward its target.
We may look at familiar sports and think their essence has been lost, arbitrated into oblivion. No way. Kids are smart. They will see that play finds a way.
And it does find a way. One snowy school holiday not long ago, I blew off work and took my kids on a hike to some sleepy railroad tracks a half mile from our home. We searched for spikes . . . and found four. We craned our heads for oncoming trains (which, truth be told, chug by only once a day at a near glacial pace.) We slid down muddy six-foot embankments on our rears. We told train stories. We rollicked. We got dirty. We imagined varmints burrowed in the hillsides. We got scared. We laughed.
Play is fun.
Lisa Twyman Bessone is a writer and child development expert living in Santa Fe, New Mexico.