Most of us of childbearing age and older have great memories of our childhoods. When I was a kid I spent every summer at the pool and on my bike getting to and from the pool. Occasionally I’d bring my tennis racket and play tennis on the court next to the pool, but mostly I was at the pool.
In the winter we spent the entire winter, when we weren’t in school, sledding and building snow forts and snowmen. I went skiing with our church a couple times per year and loved it … so much that when I grew up and started having a family, we moved to CO so we could snowboard as often as physically possible.
Obviously those days filled with freedom as a kid really shaped my view of the world and it shaped my future. So much so that when I met Dan, who was an outdoor guy through and through, we clicked. I wasn’t a big fan of camping, believe it or not, as I was really a city girl, but he was super HOT and super COOL and camping was something he and his brothers and his friends loved to do, and so my friends and I we started camping too. 🙂 I grew to love it. And I’ll never ever forget New Years Eve 1993 when Dan picked me up at my house (4 hours away from college and from him) after my dad died. He took me camping, of all things, up on Skyline Parkway in VA. It was freezing, it was sooooo freezing, but it was such a welcome distraction from my pain and guilt and misery that it solidified camping in my heart forever.
Unfortunately, these kinds of memories are fading fast for so many kids today. Video Games, Smart Phones, Television, Day Care, School, After School Care, homework, adult directed activities, tutoring, organized sports, studying, chores etc are all eroding the amount of free play our kids get. And the research is clear that the increase in childhood mental disorders, increased suicide rates, increased stress and anxiety levels and overall declining health is directly related to the lack of play our kids get.
We even have leaders in our government, like Pres Obama, and in the private sector advocating for longer school days, to prepare them for the competitive and difficult future that lies ahead. This is the worst possible idea ever! I’m absolutely convinced that free play is vitally important in the growth of children’s, brains, physical well-being and mental health. I’m so convinced by the research that I’d be willing to go head to head any day. My kids vs yours. Whose are more creative? Whose are more ready for the real world of decision making, risk and failure?
That’s pretty ballsy, eh? I mean the Obama girls are like crazy educated at Sidwell Friends. My kids are educated by, well, me. I merely focus on their interests, skills, and struggles. His kids probably know multiple languages and can recite Shakespeare. In fact, they seem so refined that they could actually have a peaceful Tea with the Queen.
Whereas, our kids run wild, they climb trees, they scream, they wrestle and tackle each other, they fight and compete to what seems like near death at times, they engage in extreme sports and carry knives and shoot guns. They even have an “imaginary friend” we call God.
Even so, I contend they are learning. They are learning about winning and losing and how to be good at both, they are learning to exercise their beliefs, they are learning about failure and are growing immensely.
Our kids are learning that picking a fight with someone bigger and stronger is flat out stupid, they are learning that when it’s your brother, all is forgiven. They are learning about taking care of each other, loving each other and looking out for each other. They are learning to put themselves last. They are learning how to build things, how to take risks and experiencing both the highs of success and the lows of failure. They push themselves to new heights daily, they douse themselves with fear and never look back. They are learning to be brave, tough and unstoppable.
They do all this, and more, not because we require it or even encourage it, but because they want to. You know, there are actual schools in this country, The Sudbury Valley School is one, whose students range in age from 4-18 or so and the kids who attend are free to do whatever they want, all day as long as they follow school rules. And the rules do not have anything to do with learning, they have to do with respect and safety and order.
I have a sort of hybrid school going on here in our home. We study math, writing and science, but the rest of the day is free to play, to discover, to experiment. I’m like the majority of you, wondering how, if there is no required and/or expected structured learning, can they actually learn anything? I want to buy in to this theory 100%, but I’m scared. I admit it, I’m not sure Rowdy would learn to read if I didn’t sit with him every day and help him learn. It’s the truth, raw and unbeautified.
But then, this school has been in existence for 45 years!! And it’s graduates are thriving in the “real world” not because the school forced Trig on its students or because the majority of their kids received straight A’s, but rather because Sudbury Valley permitted its student to learn whatever they wanted to learn, at their own pace, under the guidance of adults who are caring and knowledgeable and who help, not judge. The kids were under no pressure, no tests, no Common Core to perform. They played amongst peers of all ages in an environment of child-focused learning. It’s amazing, and for me, it’s worth striving for because it exemplifies the love of learning we all want our kids to embrace.
When playing, children learn to take responsibility for themselves and learn that life is fun even when doing things that are really really hard. Take for instance learning to snowboard. You fall a lot the first few times you are up there. You fall so much, you are sore for days. But, it is fun and when you finally get to the bottom of the run and you look back up to where you started you feel great. Then, after about 3-4 days of continuous boarding, you ride a run for the first time without falling … you feel accomplished, you feel proud. Kids learn from playing that hard work pays off. They learn to take pride in themselves and their successes.
It also teaches them that learning is their responsibility. It’s not something teachers and parents do to them, it’s something they do either by choice or by accident. When you provide a child the freedom to play, the freedom to explore, and you follow their lead their interests, children grow much faster than when you force things upon them. We’re all guilty of forcing things on our kids that we undoubtedly believe are in their best interest, but research shows they will learn without the pressure of insistence! This is remarkable!
Play also teaches children how to negotiate and get along with people. I read a great quote the other day which specifically led to the idea of this blog: “Tantrums might work with parents, but they don’t work with playmates”! Absolutely!! If kids don’t disagree, if they don’t have arguments they will never learn the art of compromise and they won’t learn to stand their ground on issues of importance.
As of late, we’ve taken so much from our children that it would be a travesty to allow free play to become extinct. It’s time we stop spending all day at work only to come home and spend all evening cleaning and cooking and organizing. It’s time we stop spending all weekend on our gardens and our remodeling projects and our football games. It’s seriously time we stop sitting at the kitchen table for hours doing homework. We all need to breathe some fresh air, throw caution to the wind and spend some serious quality time playing with our kids.
Go outside. GO OUTSIDE!! Go outside. That was the mantra of my parents, Dan’s parents and all the parents before them. It’s my mantra as well. With us, without us, we send them the heck outside. Make them put down the remote or the laptop or the controller and get the heck outside. Let play be their schooling, their anxiety drug, their weight loss regimen. Whatever, just open the door and send them out!! 🙂
What do you remember most about your childhood? School? Free Play? Sports? TV? Video Games? 🙂 How does that shape your parenting??
Disclaimer: Please supervise young children at all times … there have been too many stories in the news lately about young children being abducted while walking a few blocks to and from friends homes. Please please walk them or drive them … never let them walk alone. Times have surely changed, it seems evil is lurking around every corner. It’s terribly tragic!!!