The backyard of my suburban home in southeastern Michigan adjoins an elementary playground. Part of the playground contains a large soccer field, a baseball diamond, and 4 basketball hoops. The two play structures contain swings, a climbing wall, slides, and monkey bars of different sizes, one set for the little kids, and one set for the big kids. Next to the playground is a 1/2 mile of woods with a creek running through it. Unless school is in session, or there are soccer or baseball practices, this wonderful playground is always empty. Where have all the children gone?
I remember growing up in the late 60’s and early 70’s in Detroit. My friends and I couldn’t wait for school to let out so we could get together to play. In the winter, my friends from our neighborhood would meet at Suicide Hill with our sleds, spinning silver saucers, and toboggans to race down the hill. The trick was to avoid the trees but still hit the snowy ramp in order to catch some air before sliding to a stop at the edge of the Rouge River. There was always at least one dad in our neighborhood who flooded the backyard to create a skating rink, where we played hockey and Crack the Whip. More adventurous boys shagged behind cars by holding on to the rear fender and going for a ride, at least until the driver stopped and yelled at them to let go of the car.
In summer, the woods were alive with children playing Army or Cops and Robbers. We made forts out of whatever scraps of wood or cardboard we could find, and made rafts to sail down the river. Like a band of monkeys, we climbed trees and swung from vines just to see how high we could go.
Throughout my neighborhood, there were always children riding bikes, up to the ice cream parlor, the park, or the drug store for candy. We stayed out all day long, only going home when we got hungry or the streetlights came on. We played many different variations of Tag, Curbball, Pickle, Red Rover, and Mother May I. Clubs such as the “Spy on Bigger Kids Club” or the “Truth or Dare Club” met in tree houses or flimsy forts that only lasted until the first rain. We invented our own games, and slept out in backyards in makeshift tents.
By playing in this way, we learned how to get along with others. We knew which kids to avoid, and by sticking together, we supported each other. Instead of having our parents arrange our play dates, we simply stood on a friends’ porch and called for them to join us. Childhood was a time to enjoy freedom, to make our own rules, learn how to problem-solve, and develop confidence.
A recent news report listed that many states plan to ban sledding to prevent injuries to children. Several schools in Michigan have forbidden children to play Tag or Hide and Seek during recess because of safety concerns. Child-formed clubs can’t exist at schools because some kids feel excluded if they’re not a member. Just this week, a news outlet reported that police picked up two children, ages 6 and 10, who were walking home from a park that was less than a mile from their home. They were safe and knew their way home, but were unaccompanied by an adult. So many aspects of a child’s life are regulated and orchestrated by well-meaning adults, that there are few opportunities left for kids to learn how to gain confidence in themselves. We want kids to be brave, to take risks, be problem-solvers, learn how to compromise, and be creative and inventive, yet we deny them the opportunities to do so.
Somewhere close, there’s a playground waiting. Let them go play.