Column: Great Futures: When I Was Your Age…
By Bobby Walker
If your children are like mine, when they hear the expression, “When I was your age …” they have a weird physical reaction. My oldest child rolls her eyes, while my son gives me a quick shake of the head and a fast exit. My youngest daughter looks THROUGH me and tunes me out. However, a while ago, I got their attention when I talked about growing up in Dallas and how my friends and I would have fun during my childhood.
In my neighborhood, playing outside from lunchtime until dinner was commonplace. Groups of kids would go from one neighborhood to another and play games versus each other solely for bragging rights. We played kickball, basketball, football, games of tag, or just raced for fun.
My son listened to me describe a day where my friends and I played outside for almost ten straight hours one summer day. He asked me a perplexing question, “Dad, was there an adult with y’all when you went to these different places?” I was stunned by his question. So, I threw it back to him by asking, “Why would you ask that?” He explained that if he and a group of kids were to try and have a day like the one I described, there would always be an adult present. As we discussed it further, he reminded me that parents would not just be present, they would supervise the activities to make sure everyone was playing fairly.
Wow! My son’s world of play is so vastly different from mine as a child. When he was younger, his version of play was supervised and usually directed by an adult. This realization hit me hard. It wasn’t until they got older that my wife and I allowed our children to go outside, alone. It was a pleasure getting a recap of what they did those days — capture the flag, manhunt, hanging out, telling jokes, and so on.
Last month, I was reminded of this conversation with my children when I heard an NPR podcast called “Childhood As ‘Resume Building’: Why Play Needs A Comeback.” The podcast went into detail about the decline of play in childhood. Many factors are contributing to this loss of actual playtime. Overbearing and overprotective parents and the ever-present fears of injury and stranger danger result in children rarely being left alone to “be kids” with other kids. Also, parents feel the pressure that their child needs to be enrolled in numerous extracurricular activities to bolster them in school and, to be honest, be competitive for college. Extra sports leagues, longer tutoring sessions, additional music lessons and mandatory volunteer outings have replaced unstructured free time where children can just be kids. The podcast did not, in any way, state that children should be left unsupervised in dangerous environments, or that having children involved in extracurricular activities is a negative thing. However, the loss of play and the skills that children learn from merely being kids — peer interaction, resilience, self-determination, and problem-solving — is of concern. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, play is an essential aspect of healthy child development, and child-led activities have significant benefits.
Here is a quote from a paper* written about the necessity of play for proper development:
“Play is important to healthy brain development. … Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills. When play is allowed to be child-driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue. When play is controlled by adults, children acquiesce to adult rules and concerns and lose some of the benefits play offers them, particularly in developing creativity, leadership, and group skills.”
Learning from the conversation with my kids and my son’s astute observations, I encourage everyone to give your children, of all ages, time to be a child. Provide guidelines and keep them safe but let them create their own fun and provide them the freedom to do the things they enjoy doing. And … when possible, get some of your friends together and have fun! After all, adults are just big kids!
Bobby Walker, Jr. is the CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Greenwich. A former independent school administrator and teacher, Bobby is the father of three playful children. He joined Boys & Girls Club in 2014 as CEO. In his column, Great Futures, Bobby Walker, Jr. brings his unique voice and perspective to topics affecting youth and families in our community.