Sunday, March 23, 2014

What does (your) child's play look like?

It was with great interest that I read The Atlantic's "The Overprotected Kid," which I heard about from Jessie. The blurb:

A preoccupation with safety has stripped childhood of independence, risk taking, and discovery—without making it safer. A new kind of playground points to a better solution.

The TL;DR of it is that parents (like me) who were allowed to roam free in their own childhoods are now keeping a much closer eye on the play activities of their children and discouraging risky and/or unsupervised behavior. This, even though stranger abductions are thisclose to being a non-danger, and so-called improvements in playground equipment safety (such as rubber matting or woodchips instead of asphalt) have not lead to any appreciable decrease in playground injuries. The "new kind of playground" mentioned in the article is basically a junkyard that kids are encouraged to play in.

I am in absolute agreement with this article, even though I tend to hyperventilate at the thought of the possibility of my kids playing with 2x4s and rusty nails while the group of 10-year-old boys nearby lights a fire in a metal garbage can. Eek! Also, it's great that statistics show that kids don't get seriously injured at the playground that often, but that is cold comfort for the mom of the kid who was partially paralyzed after falling off a slide (referenced in the article). In my own experience, on paper I believe children, including mine, should play with sticks and pretend they're swords, etc., but then someone gets poked in the eye and it's not so fun anymore.

All that said, in real, everyday life, I encourage my girls to play outside on their own, unsupervised by me. During breaks from school, and often on Saturdays, I send the girls outside and sometimes only see them when they come inside for food, drink, and the bathroom (I see a lot of other people's kids in my bathroom, too). I glance out the window from time to time and see a lean-to made out of yard clippings and tree limbs propped against a house there; a picnic blanket and pillows here (complete with 5-year-olds pretending to be babies wrapped up, "sleeping,"); our bin of scarves and hats and dress-ups overturned on the grass; and groups of children industriously coloring in the white dotted line down the center of the street with fluorescent pink sidewalk chalk. The rule for my kids is that they can't be running around outside alone. That's it. If they have a playmate, I try to let them do as they please.

They don't even really have playdates. If they want to play with someone, they start knocking on neighbors' doors. Or they go outside and start an activity that will attract other kids.

This system (or lack thereof) is not without its downsides. When kids are just playing in the neighborhood, it can be hard to police who made this mess on someone's patio, or who is commandeering the 3-year-olds' scooters, or who dared someone else to drink irrigation water mixed with dirt. And there is the issue of me noticing a different kid in my bathroom every hour, though I haven't had as much trouble with that since I drew an imaginary radius around our home and told the girls and their playmates that anyone who lived inside of said radius had to go use their own toilet, at their own home.

I hope all of the above means my girls are getting at least a taste of good, old-fashioned, outdoor, unstructured, unsupervised play.

What does your child's play look like? Is it playdate-dominated? Park-based? Supervised? Would you let your kid play on junkyard mattress trampolines?

Here is what our street looked like one early evening in January (it gets dark early here - this was probably around 6pm).


Nancy said...

I let Rachel play by herself outside in our yard. Miriam is only allowed in the back alone, but if she's with Rachel she can have full run of the yard/street. Benjamin can be in the backyard with the girls but if he's in the front I have to be there (because he sometimes forgets that he's not allowed in the street and the girls sometimes forget to watch him).

I made the neighbour girls get in trouble accidentally because they wanted to help turn over the soil in the flower garden. I was like, "Sweet!" and handed everyone a tool (shovel, hoe, trowel, rake, whatever else we had) and they had a blast digging for worms and grubs until their dad came and said they couldn't play because they weren't being supervised properly. He was, like, really mad that I wasn't watching them work with the tools. (I was in the vegetable garden in the back). But whatever.

Our rule is that if we're in the yard, you're welcome, too. If we're working neighbour kids will come work with us (or will offer to help Benjamin on the play set so I can work in peace). If we're playing kids will come play...even the little boy in the back who has to cross a creek to get to our yard.

Anyway, I think unsupervised play is healthy (for me and the kids). And I think that if MORE kids played outside more often that our neighbourhoods would be safer, not less safe.

Just the other day the girls were outside playing and I was supervising Benjamin (because baby) and the 4-year-old across the street ran into our yard wailing about how her dad had said no to something. It was getting super annoying and I was almost ready to get involved (I try to let kids sort things on their own but also step in when things are getting either out of hand or on my nerves...whatever happens first) when Miriam said to her, "I need you to speak to me in a normal voice."

I just about died laughing. But her friend took a few deep breaths and explained everything normally. All without adult intervention. :)

Amanda Ball said...

Tyler and I like to call our kids "free-range" children.

Beth Slade said...

I wish we had that many kids running around the neighborhood. We live by a bunch of old people and a bunch of teenagers who drive to fast and occasionally use drugs. One time a bunch were smoking pot in the garage and they laughed at Captain E when he fell off his bike. I was pretty sure Dr. J was going to go and kick some butts but luckily he restrained himself. Captain E and Gigi can play in our circle without supervision but I like to keep the window open so I can keep on ear on them. Mainly they just like to ride bikes back and forth. Peach and Cheetah only when I'm out front. All four can and do play in the back while I'm inside. I love that I can watch them from my kitchen window if I want to take a peak at what they are up to. There is a park just a few blocks from where I live and a nice little lake a few blocks the opposite direction. I wish I felt comfortable just letting them run wild there but a couple of years ago a guy tried to snatch a girl from the neighborhood. Her dad was in the garage and was a cop and within seconds of it happening had put out an APB on the guy and the 20 or so other cops who live in the neighborhood found him but it made a lot of us feel not so safe. We live in a nice middle class neighborhood with tons of cop who park their cars in the driveway so you know they are home. If someone is ballsy enough to try to snatch a kid here it just makes you worry for the world.

Suzanne Bubnash said...

Absolutely love that video! It's like the old days--my childhood and yours. At one point we had over 20 children on our little street, plus more in the neighborhood. The best thing for children is for them to go knock on doors to see who can play, and to play outdoors much as possible. It's a shame when the lives of children are entirely scripted by their parents.

Eevi said...

I wont let my kids play in the front because our drive way is short and steep and people drive very fast by our house. I will let them be there by themselves for a minute or two if we are going somewhere and I have to run in to get something. If we are in the front, then we let them run/bike up and down the street. When we are at a park, i let them roam/explore as much as they want. I wish I could be more hands off. I just dont think my neighborhood set up is for it now. My kids play in the backyard for hours unsupervised. Isn't that the point of a backyard?:) I think the way your kids can play is very cool.


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