Recently, I was riding home from a wonderful bike ride in the beautiful Oregon farmlands. The sun was shining, the birds were singing and all was right with the world. Riding my last climb up the ridge toward home I noticed a large group of children playing at the end of the street. The sight of many children out in the middle of the day playing, with no adults around, was wonderful. The children were loud and busy having fun riding their bikes, running around and drawing with sidewalk chalk all over the street.
There are many children living in my neighborhood. I notice them waiting for the school bus on the mornings I leave the house early. What I do not encounter are many children outside playing. What happened to play? Where did play go?
In our day play personified all children did when not in school. As children, we lived outside playing until it was time to come home. In the book Play by Stuart Brown M.D., he talks about the same experience I lived as a child. “It used to be that self organized play was all we did. Most adults over the age of forty-five will likely have memories of exploring on their own, through puddles and fields or on city streets. The only direction they got from their parents was to be home for dinner or before dark”. That was my life when I got out of school. I checked in with my parents and then hit the streets with my bike and my friends.
The children in my neighborhood played sports, biked, skated, rode skateboards, played hide and seek, kick the can and over the line. We chased butterflies, played in the mud, climbed trees and rolled in the grass. We created our play experiences on the spot and just rolled with the punches. Unfortunately I encounter little of this type of play anymore and that is a concern. I am aware most children live busy lives with extracurricular activities like music lessons, tae kwon do and club sports. Then there is homework, dinner and sleep. Are children missing important developmental opportunities by experiencing all the activities in their life under adult supervision?
The benefits of self-organized play are tremendous. During my play experiences we learned social skills as the rules of every game were negotiated. We learned who possessed great skills and who to learn new skills from. We strengthened our bodies with hours and hours of exercise and we learned how to share while building friendships. We helped each other and looked out for each other. Self-organized play embodied our own world, separate from the adult world and governed by our own rules.
My play experiences represent the reason I studied recreation and child development and work with children today. I want children to experience the same play opportunities, because I believe self-organized child directed play benefits children. I am encouraged by the current movement to get children out into nature and to bring back recess. I hope these movements are successful in returning children to the neighborhood streets, parks, and playgrounds a positive movement toward fresh air, sunshine, better health and development.
How do the children in your program spend their free time?