When Lenore Skenazy suggested to the First Lady yesterday on her blog, Free Range Kids, that the battle against childhood obesity can’t be won without letting kids play, I agreed. But I bristle at the (anti Free Range) idea that we have to teach our kids how to play. Here’s what I wrote 18 months ago for Good Housekeeping:
All five boys in my backyard were complaining through my window at the same time. Something about “weapons” and “territory” and “He started it.” Apparently, one of the boys had violated the rules they’d set up about pilfering “weapons” (a.k.a. hockey sticks and wood) from the other group’s “fort” (a.k.a. a precarious lean-to in the woods.) But I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Then my phone rang.
“Go figure it out yourselves,” I shouted over the complaints and the ringing. “If you can’t get along, you can all go home.”
I didn’t hear from them again. One-by-one, they raced by my window, shouting orders to each other for the rest of the afternoon. I figured they’d worked it out – anything to get to play together.
Then an e-mail came to my computer about some books designed to teach children backyard games that “demand imagination and physical well-being.” In other words, they teach them how to play.
As the herd of boys ran past my window again, I wondered, Do kids really need to learn how to play? Do they need, for example, NFL players on TV offering them tips for how to play with their friends? (Here’s one from their web site “Hop.”)
I’m not talking about resources with the rules for Capture the Flag or Ghost in the Graveyard. Or even tips for parents on how to keep the kids busy on rainy days. Rather, I’m baffled by web sites and books designed to show kids why they need to get out and play in the first place.
Suddenly, a child ran by with the bucket I use to mop our floors. Only, it was now filled with rocks and read on its side – in permanent marker – “Pudding Hill Mining Company.” In the woods out back, I heard the sound of rocks being dumped out. A boy shouted, “Hurry, men!” And then the kid with the bucket, now empty, ran by again.
And then I remembered what had happened at one playdate on a beautiful day this past summer. While three boys were outside, playing, the fourth was inside, jamming out on Guitar Hero.
“Why aren’t you outside?” I asked him.
“There’s nothing to do out there,” he replied, never once missing a note – and in Expert mode, no less.
“You’re here to play with my kids,” I reminded him. “Go outside.”
Reluctantly, he put down the guitar, shut off the TV and wandered outside where he looked bored for the rest of the afternoon. If only he’d known he should hop.
As the Pudding Hill Mining Company continued rushing past my window, I thought I’d better make sure that no one was in our family room playing “Barracuda.” But, the room was empty, the TV cold. I looked out the window into the backyard to see two boys carrying small squares of plywood and another pulling a rock from the dirt by the edge of our driveway. And it looked to me like they’d figured it out all by themselves.
Share, share, that’s fair: What do you think? Do kids need to be taught how to play (besides video games, of course.)?