All of these items were provided to us Hauck kids at a very early age. The stilts, roller skates and pogo stick were more for me than my brothers but we all enjoyed and used all of these lawn games and outdoor playscapes for unsupervised outdoor fun. Our basketball court and the tetherball pole were used by lots of children in the neighborhood. The vacant lot provided a physical space for pickup games with all the neighborhood gang. We even had a light on the basketball court so we could play a game of “horse” late into the evening. It was one way we all learned to develop a passion and instinct for sports and more importantly, character building.
Me and my pogo stick.
As a family, we laugh as we listen to Brian Regan’s comedic bit that he performs about his childhood memories. He talks about how he and his brothers were often ordered outside by their mother. She would say “go outside and do a good activity”. The sons would then go outside to play. The challenge was the definition of a “good activity”. Regan jokes, is “staring at the sun a good activity?” What makes the joke work is that we understand there is risk associated with a child’s undirected play but the results are so much more thrilling and important to a child’s development.
‘Outdoor play provides open-ended, dynamic, varied opportunities which are unpredictable and at times risky. However, the risks and challenges of being outdoors provide rich opportunities for learning, problem-solving and developing social competence’ (Greenfield, 2004, p. 1). Children need the freedom to take risks in play because it allows them to continually test the limits of their physical, intellectual and emotional development (Tranter, 2005).
It seems today that nervous parents are keeping kids from an important childhood rite — the chance to play outdoors without the feeling that adults have to watch over them every second to keep them safe. I had free reign over many blocks in the small Kansas towns of my childhood. As long as I could hear my parents calling from the yard or ringing the dinner bell, I was good. Now, because of threats real or imaged, people don’t allow their children to wander around. I understand both sides.
Working on my free throw.
Today, it’s rare for kids to spend so much time outdoors on their own. Instead of unstructured outdoor play, our kids have scheduled play dates and structured activities. In their limited free time, kids today are likely to be indoors. A Kaiser Family Foundation study found that kids spend more than 7.5 hours using some sort of electronic media every day. The combination of over scheduling, lack of freedom to roam , and the temptations of electronic media means that American kids today spend a mere 4-7 minutes on average, outdoors doing unstructured play.
“Is this a good activity, Mom?”
Growing up, I always knocked on the neighbors’ doors or answered mine, and a group of us kids would run around, play and explore. I don’t remember ever feeling afraid. But as a parent to three little girls growing up in the 1990’s, I was more protective. I did, however, allow them to walk the five blocks to school when they were in elementary school. I often walked with them when I could and always encouraged them to walk in pairs whenever feasible. Fortunately I live on Ashland with a block full of caring adults who are willing to pay attention to neighborhood kids and watch out for adults that we are not familiar with seeing on the block. My girls benefited from lots of free play in the front and backyards of Ashland neighbors as well as many independent trips to the local community center and quick trips to and from the playgrounds at the neighborhood middle school and elementary school. We encouraged them to travel in packs of three or more. All three of my children are better adjusted young adults because of these experiences with freedom at an early age and due to opportunities for them to build the excellent character they have today.
“How about this one, Mom? Look no poles!”
“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”