Free Play Gone

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Some 48 years ago, my parents (perhaps over a glass of wine and a scotch), decided to move the family to Aquidneck Island — where I was raised, not far from the ocean, in a neighborhood of shabbily constructed raised ranches — where on warm summer days, squinty-eyed kids staggered zombie-like from their garages or front doors, pop-tarted, sugar-smacked, and ready to roll.

We played ball (whiffle, base, foot, basket and stick) in our backyards or in the street — we rode bikes everywhere, we red rovered red rovered, and kicked the can against a near perfect backdrop of New England sunsets and warm summer breezes, to a generous and harmonious soundtrack of crickets, peepers, and nightingales.

We hunted salamanders in the woods and flash-lighted our way to collecting night crawlers for fishing expeditions at the town reservoir, to which we walked unattended by adults, poles over our shoulders, sun warm on our backs, our conversations held together with lite laughter and kinship.

The entire summer we hardly interacted with Mom or Dad except at dinner time, which was had around the dining room table without exception.

And so it was on Aquidneck Island I stayed, met my wife, raised 2 good boys and 4 dogs — the latest, a pocket sized pit bull, full of spittle and spunk, who envelops me in rhythmic doggy snores as I write this piece.

What strikes me most on this stroll down memory lane is the magnitude of change in parenting over a single generation. Our generation, handicapped by socioeconomic conditions requiring two working parents, and a feeling of fear and mistrust (largely unwarranted), the flames of which were fanned by continuous exposure to 24-hour cable news, which made us believe we could never leave our kids alone, that they had to be within earshot or eye sight 24 hours a day, less someone steal them away forever — and so it was by these phenomena, that free play, that priceless gift and ever-important ingredient in child development, was killed.

Gone are the days when kids gathered at a park or in someone’s back yard to organize on their own and “get a game going” — sadly, this has been replaced by regularly scheduled league games on sun-splashed well-manicured fields with perfectly chalked sidelines and clipboard-carrying, whistle-blowing, score book-keeping adults shouting out instructions while pacing in front of tight-jawed fathers in sunglasses and bermuda shorts (newspapers tucked firmly under their arms), whilst antsy, floppy-hatted moms in folding chairs with cup holders, try to capture every moment of play on their iPads or cell phones.

I think we’ve forgotten the value of free play on uneven surfaces where the end zones were marked by a rock and a tree, and the sidelines were guesstimated according to natural or not so natural boundaries and, most importantly, where kids worked out the teams and the rules and addressed issues that arose without “expert” interference by adults.

As my children walk into adulthood, I wonder about the absence of free play and the implications of an overly-scheduled, overly-structured, and, quite frankly, overly-parented childhood.

4 Comments

  1. Great writing, but it is interesting how you forget about free time of pulling fire alarms on docks throwing potatoes and snowballs at cars etc

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    1. I was having trouble editing / responding. I have not forgotten those times when as kids, we stepped outside the boundaries a bit — all part of growing up. 🙂

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  2. Just awesome! We learned so much going up in Redwood Farms. Everything you said was true. I long for those days and remember how I did try to let my kids “Free play” I was always worried about being judged. The cool thing is though I taught my kids how to play kick the can and how to throw a bat to someone else to catch it so you decide who got to choose the first team member. I shared stories about sledding down the big hill off Harbor View road and playing at the bottom of the hill doing things that one would never dare tell their parents. My kids listen with amazement and we drive through Redwoods farm on trips back to “The Island” I share the stories again and it brings me back to those good old days. I feel fortunate! Glad to share part of your growing up!

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