Kathleen Wrigley: The Freedom To Play

When I was a little girl, we played outside all summer long, sunup to sundown. I lived in a row house. Our households and our lives were literally connected. The street lights were our curfew. We played sprint, dodge-ball, and tag with mixed-age neighborhood kids. I learned how to whistle—more like a piercing screech—with both my fingers shoved in my mouth [this has served me well]. We rode our bikes to the community pool, accompanied only by a towel and a quarter for a pretzel from the vendor. And—at least once a week—the teenagers would crank the fire hydrants to full blast and we’d splash like bandits. The high-pressure water propelled us into the middle of the street. We’d get back in line for another chance, until the police squad car or fire truck would pull up and ruin our fun. Everyone scattered like hooligans, hiding under cars or running home…until next time. And though we ran and hid in fear, no one ever got in trouble. The patrol officers expected these calls on scorching summer days. Then at night the adult conversations and laughter from the connecting porches filtered through the open windows and into our homes.

Independent, outside play was an important part of summer. We explored in all sorts of ways, without the overly cautious, watchful eyes of doting parents. We overcame boredom on our own, using our imaginations. We tested boundaries, got into trouble, and then learned how to find our way out of it. The freedom to play outside brought wisdom and well-earned lessons. We didn’t know it, but those long summer days were experience in social and practical skills, self-discipline and curiosity, and passion for exploring.

Nowadays, kids are too often micro-managed by grown-ups. Today’s adult-directed sports have replaced neighborhood “pickup” games. There are adult-directed camps and organizations for hobbies like Legos and arts and crafts. Today’s parents often forbid children from going out to play unsupervised and away from home because of their own fears. I get it. I often hover, too. It’s a great big, dangerous, world out there.

At the risk of oversimplifying the consequences and in an attempt to start a conversation about this trend, the research cannot be ignored. Kids are turning inward. They’re communicating with each other electronically instead of face-to-face. They’re sitting inside being entertained by games on their hand-held devices or watching TV. Fewer hours are devoted to outdoor, self-governing play with peers.

There is a variety of reasons for the decline in outside play, but the result—over time—is dramatic and unquestionable. By gradually reducing our kids’ chances to adventurously play, we are chipping away at opportunities for them to learn. Their creative juices are stifled. The chance for them to take initiative and find limitations is diminished. When they play outside, on their own, kids make rules and monitor who follows them, promoting self-regulation. The physical and social skills they develop will last a lifetime. Not to mention the memories they’ll build.

I have to wonder about the increased trends of childhood obesity and mental health issues, both of which have a direct link to outside playtime. Dr. Peter Gray, a psychologist and research professor at Boston College says that, “Childhood mental disorders have been increasing.” Hello, mass shootings. He goes on to assert that according to his research, “It’s not just that we’re seeing disorders that we overlooked before. Clinical questionnaires aimed at assessing anxiety and depression, for example, have been given in unchanged form to normative groups of schoolchildren in the US since the 1950s…and the results reveal that the continuous, essentially linear, increase in anxiety and depression in young people are five times what they were in the 1950s…and the suicide rate for children under age 15 has quadrupled.” Quadrupled. This is staggering.

This researcher and so many others link the decrease of unsupervised outdoor play as a major contributor to these dismal trends for our kiddos.

I wrestle with and fight the urge—on a daily basis—to be the helicopter mom. We are barraged with a constant dose of bad-news stories. It’s gripping. Knowing the dangers in our world and wanting to protect our children from them can be paralyzing. But whom are we paralyzing?

Talk about helicopter mom. As I write this column, I’m resisting the itch to rent my own helicopter to hover over the scout camp in Minnesota where our 11-year-old son, Patrick, is on his fourth day of camping, without us. It’s his first week-long trip, and he’s five hours away from home—one hour by helicopter, if mom’s piloting. Because of scheduling conflicts with his own troop, he tagged along with his cousin’s Fargo troop. He doesn’t know any of the leaders or other kids. And unless there’s an emergency, we won’t hear from him until we pick him up. On Friday. Just two more sleeps.

Know what kinda bugs me? I bet he’s having a blast and is discovering new feathers in his life-launch wings.

It’s been raining all week. My husband, Drew, has been tracking every drop. He told me last night, “Well, after three straight days of rain, it finally stopped—according to my radar—at 10 tonight.”

Every night this week, I went to bed and wondered what our son was doing. He must be safe. Has he made friends? How many merit badges has he earned? Then I pray for him. I pray that he remembered all the camping, first-aid, and other tips his Eagle Scout dad schooled him on. I hope that the full-sized backpack he’s using—the same one Drew used as a young scout—makes him feel like a part of home is with him.

I know this is an extraordinary learning experience for him—and for his mom, too. He’ll be forced to be independent and self-sufficient. And he’ll have fun. Just before he left, I stood outside his bedroom door listening as he and Drew went through a checklist. He told Patrick: “You will make mistakes this week. Expect them. Don’t get down on yourself. We all make mistakes. But learn from them, Patrick. And you’ll be fine. It’ll be wet. Hang your wet clothes in your tent to dry. Keep the tent door closed. And have fun.”

This might be the extreme of outdoor play. The memories and the lessons Patrick will learn at scout camp this week will last a lifetime. Thankfully, no one is calculating and recording mom’s anxiety level as I force myself to go against an overpowering urge to hover and protect my child from the freedom to play. The freedom to fail… to get hurt…to rise up…dust off…and learn.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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