Friday, November 5, 2010

The Hassle Factor of Modern Play

Have we forgotten how to play and why?  This has been on my mind much lately as I ponder a number of things being done ostensibly for the long term welfare and safety of our nation's children.   San Francisco banned happy meals to combat obesity.  DC requires children be in car seats as old as 8.  But the clincher was when my son grew sad.  His favorite playground removed the chain and plastic swings he'd always considered completely cool.  Looking at the empty spot, I recalled when I was a kid, we had swing races on metal swings where we even did tandem and backwards or sideways and spinnies.  We still played hard on them even as 8th graders.  There were contests to see who could leap off and land without falling backwards or forwards the farthest. "They took away the swings so no one will get hurt." I explained to my son.  "Yeah, but no one will have any fun either." he answered and I had no answer to counter his claim.

I started thinking about all of the changes from one childhood to the next.  When I was in school, we'd walk the balance beam of the teeter totter and have challenges to see who could edge down without touching all the time. Today we have no see-saws, only plastic slides and tunnels and ladders with easy to navigate stairs. There is no courage required to jump off the high dive because there are no high dives. Many used to walk to school when my oldest was six but that was dangerous so now buses get everyone and society wonders why kids maybe are less healthy.

Growing up, we had three channels, four if you counted the fuzzy PBS, and now we have 1000's and one that is 24-7 no matter what cartoons and we wonder why kids don't want to do anything other than watch.  Even ten years ago, I knew kids that used to go all over the neighborhood trolling for friends.  Now we teach them to stay on their property for fear of troll like adults and wonder why there are no pick up games of hide and seek or kick the can or freeze tag.  We've banned dodge ball and tag but somehow think kids should get out there and move.   To which the kids might justly ask, "Why?" It's good for you isn't sufficient.  If it were fun, they wouldn't need our prodding.   Then there's the examples we set. We model sedation and self isolation at any cost, with emails, computers, blackberries, texting, ipods, televisions everywhere and when we exercise, it's on machines that repeat motions and go nowhere while we zone out.  Even we are bored by our activity.  

I grew up jumping on a trampoline, doing flips and double seats and playing rocket. (You shoot the other jumper up by timing when you land to send the other person soaring). Today, trampolines are almost non existent.  Skates were strapped on metal things and off you went, skinned knees and all. And bikes of all kinds were for racing down the street or down the hill or anywhere.  Today, you helmet and mouth guard and knee pad and strap and even then you fall, but the hassle of getting ready makes the prospect of skating less enticing.  Who wants to spend 15 minutes getting ready to fall? 

Look at kid sports.  It used to be there was an A team and a B team and you might not make either.  If you didn't make the first cut, there was the chance, the dream that if you worked hard and grew and maybe got a bit lucky at tryouts the next year, you might advance.  The same held true for the person who didn't make the team at all.  If you didn't win, you didn't get a trophy.  Maybe a family held an end of year party with a cake but that was a maybe, and you got a certificate of participation at the sports award ceremony.  A-teamers got school letters or trophies or medals.  Winners got bigger ones. 

Today, my house is filled with trophies for participation for soccer, for softball, for baseball, for flag football and swimming.  The kids don't care about them, as one said, "All I did was show up."  Sure, she played, but even she knew the team had gone 2 and 6 even if no one theoretically kept score.  If you win even if you lose, maybe you don't feel as bad about losing, but you sure don't care much.  It makes you apathetic towards both winning and losing, which can translate into being indifferent to trying and trying that much harder. Sometimes the ache of not getting can be the inspiration for working, for trying, for reaching; and more than that, the struggle creates layers of meaning that getting something no matter what undermines or out and out destroys.

When we were kids, seasons of sports, like cartoons on Saturday, like strawberries at the market, ended.  There wasn't another league with a 10 week schedule lined up chomping at the bit for a kid to take on at the end of the season.   When the 11 o'clock Batman Tarzan show ended, you turned off the TV and went out to play, assuming your parents hadn't had a fit by 10 and turned it off and kicked you outside earlier.  When the season ended, there was down time and the kids you wanted to have over to play in the back yard or go biking with, could go.  

There wasn't an inherent pressure on the parents and the kids that if you don't sign up, you might as well forget ever playing this sport again.  Kids could try on games and activities, dabble without being completely ignored or lost in the shuffle.    All the kids in our neighborhood knew how to skate, ride a bike, climb a tree, swim and fish and only two of them (my brothers) had been boy scouts.  Some had broken arms or skinned knees in the process of some of it, but that meant you got to tell stories and sign casts and learned how to fall or take a hit or maybe judge a branch before you went up just a bit more.  It also meant you got sent to give cup cakes or something to the neighbor's house when the kid you didn't like fell and hurt themselves and you laughed. It built community and a neighborhood and softened the edges that skinned knees and poor kid judgement sometimes created.  

Granted, a lot of what now exists, was created because these experiences were not without their share of pain, pain of rejection, pain of knocking on the doors and being told "No." and pain of knowing in one's bones that something was as of yet and possibly not ever, attainable, and the hurt of childhood moments when children could be and sometimes were unkind.  But the same experiences taught empathy, taught persistence, taught courage and determination in the face of adversity and patience; they taught that both physical pain and emotional wounds were survivable.  On top of all that, even the kids with slings or who got stitches were out there the next day when the children in the neighborhood decided to organize crazy races or have a contest to collect every pecan in the yard or play red rover.  It was crazy, it was competitive, there were winners, losers and at the same time, everyone had fun.  

Will our children understand anything of how to cope with being human if in every endeavor, they can never fail, never lose, never wrestle?   If 2+2=5 and spelling doesn't matter, why learn?  If making the basket or not are the same, then why play?  If we declare that everyone is our friend, even those we know are not, how have we taught anything about real friendship?

We should play because it is freeing and fun and has a hint of chaos not found in school or work or chores or set plans.  We should want to play not because it is the recommended daily allowance of fun, but because life shouldn't be all about multi-tasking and achievement and being acknowledged; life should have the unscripted chaos that comes from impromptu games and discovered friendships and the moments of greatness that only happen when we're totally into what it is we are doing even if no one is on the sideline cheering.   (Greatest hiding place ever as a kid, Vicki's yard, the magnolia tree), you hid, waited until the person "It" went past and quietly jumped down and bolted.   Unless you fell or were very very slow, you never got caught --until everyone figured out to look up the tree first --then you were dead before you even started.

But at current course and speed with ever encroaching padded playgrounds and trans fat free lunches, we will have taught our children that life should always be safe, should always be pain free and that may be the greatest danger we could ever inflict upon them.

Yeah, I know, it's just swings Sherry...but frankly, I miss them too.


Anonymous said...

You might enjoy the book "The last Child in the Woods" about overprotecting our children, and keeping them form the natural world.

Sharon said...

You said it all, so eloquently and to the point. Good for you.

Anonymous said...

Sherry, I can't agree with you more about.......well, all of it, wuite frankly. I've noticed that there are no merry-go-rounds anymore. Soon, they'll ban those plastic slides because they get too hot in the sun and someone threatened to sue because their kids legs got blistered, nevermind the lesson about staying off of hot playground equipment.

Stay At Home Mom at Work said...

This was great post. Thank you for writing it. During this last summer, the comments of "I'm bored," almost had me send out my children with rope to our wood pile, with the wise words of "Go make something. Create." I still might do it next summer, as I completely agree with you on the "too safe" parenting. Our world has pain and they need to learn how to handle it. Thanks for this post again!

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