Sunday, February 14, 2010

What's lacking in today's world is 'kids at play'

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 2/14/2010

This semester I am taking a literature course. It is refreshing to be the student and not the professor. And unlike sitting in on a course in my discipline or a related one, a literature course is well outside my “expertise.” Indeed, I am not doing much better than average, although I might be learning more.

The theme of the course is “hope.” One of our authors located “hope” in family. Our professor asked us to respond to a section from the readings, asking us to write about a family-like activity that fit the author’s idea of family as a “training ground” of skills for a larger community. I wrote about “play.” Five minutes later, we were sharing our responses.

Professors must listen to each student and respond to them. I, however, not being the professor, got to just listen to my classmates give their answers without having to respond. The first handful of students gave very different answers than mine. They wrote about being on a team, or the marching band, in the army, in a church youth group or some other formally organized activity. Eventually a student talked about helping out at a nephew’s first birthday party and another talked about Thanksgiving dinner. These are rituals. No one else played.

Our professor asked us to write about what skill these family-like activities taught us for the larger community. Those who spoke of formally organized activities, like athletic teams, youth groups, and marching bands, spoke of leadership and discipline. I wrote about problem solving, conflict resolution, and leadership.

My response, so different from the other students’, reflects, I think, a significant generational difference. Kids today, especially middle-class kids, grow up in a tightly organized, over-organized really, environment, that begins in pre-school, enlarges to school, carries on after school with lessons, practices, and activities, takes up the weekend with performances, matches and church activities. When do kids ever get to just “play?”

I wrote about playing in my neighborhood. Playing ball with multi-aged boys and girls. We didn’t have adult referees to make calls for us. We often altered the rules (permanent pitchers), manufactured additional players (invisible runners), even had different rules for different players (older kids get two strikes, while younger get five), and calling your fields (changing foul territory to accommodate only two outfielders). We resolved conflicts without adults and (usually) without violence (lots of “do overs” and rules negotiation). Our goal was to “keep playing,” living in the moment, not for a spot in the playoffs. When a mom would call one of us home, we’d adjust the rules, adjust the players, and keep on playing.

We invented games. I recall variations on hide and seek, two-person baseball (we called it “pop fly”), three-person football, wiffle ball golf, and other games that I don’t recall the names of. I was involved in formally organized activities, too. I played Little League baseball in the spring and summer and took piano lessons in the fall and winter. I played more “pop fly,” three-person football, and wiffle ball golf than I pitched and played third base in Little League, however.

Today adults try to teach conflict resolution to kids in schools. I learned conflict resolution playing in the neighborhood. I learned about fairness, not from an umpire, but from making it so all the kids, little kids and big, could play together. Young adults today think leadership is a position and not a quality.

Last Christmas, I spent a lot of time playing with my 5-year-old grand niece. She engaged in play this way: she wanted me to tell her to do something and she would do it. Frankly, this wasn’t much fun (for me) because she got to play with the Playdoh. I negotiated with her to alter the rules a bit; we alternated the roles. She enjoyed telling me what to make and eventually some of the older kids joined in with all of us rotating roles of being the baker or the customer.

Rather than leadership and discipline, I think the over-organized world our kids face today teach “followership” and routine. Through play kids learn “personal responsibility” because they have to problem solve and they use their imaginations to break the routine. It is not a question of either/or, but a matter of balance. I think kids’ lives today are over organized. It is beginning to snow. Maybe all the activities will be cancelled tomorrow and kids can play in the snow.

What's lacking in today's world is 'kids at play'

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 2/14/2010
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