My children are outside right now playing with other kids in the neighborhood. It’s the kind of thing that supposedly never happens anymore in America, kids playing outdoors on their own. The game appears to be a soccer/kickball/war/superspy combo, very creative. Yeah, I’m feeling pretty good about my parenting right now.
Except that they won’t be playing like this tomorrow, and maybe not the day after that. My kids might head out into the yard after school, but before they get too busy I will be calling them to the car to go to music lessons. Their friends across the street might be off to sports practice and dance class. And there’s always homework to do.
The links between a healthy child and outdoor play are well documented, and the evidence for more play time in general just keeps building. Simply being outside is one thing – connecting to nature and breathing fresh air. There’s also the special kind of play that can happen when kids gather outdoors, beyond parental interference, with the time and space to organize themselves and their ideas. They enter the Land of Kids.
I know this, I believe in it, I am blogging about it. I understand the dangers of an over-scheduled, over-supervised childhood. But it can be really hard to do things differently. Fears of stranger danger, the pull of organized activities, demanding school work, too little recess and car-centric communities all are real forces pushing our families indoors, into rigid schedules. I encounter these pressures every day.
This day, with the kids outside on their own on the same day that their friends are free, with nothing to do but play, feels revolutionary. In a way it is. Fortunately, I'm not alone. My neighbors, the parents to my kids’ playmates, want their children outside, too. We all send them out when we can, kind of like the moms of old who wouldn’t permit their children indoors again until they rang the dinner bell.
I used to feel guilty about a free day, worried my kids were missing out, fretting that I just didn't have it together enough to fully maximize their experiences. That finally started to seem crazy. We've cut back, not entirely but enough to have more free time each week. Sometimes I say okay to my kids leaving homework to last on a fine day, and maybe staying outside so long it doesn't get done at all. And then I have to be okay with the resulting grade.
Often our neighborhood is empty of kids playing outdoors, and I think of the block-wide kickball and war games kids played when I was growing up 35 years ago. I met someone recently, a few years older than me, who claimed that as a kid he would ride a raft 10 miles down a creek and then jump on a passing train to get back home. I don’t advocate kids riding the rails, and frankly I wouldn’t go back to the good ‘ol days, even if we could. For one thing, it would likely mean all of us mothers would have to stay home all day, as well.
But we can make little changes around the edges of our lives, revolutionary or not. On this day, the kids have been outside for hours now, having a blast. If I had a dinner bell I’d ring it to call them in. Today it is enough.