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Free Play: It Ain’t Always Easy

Most of us have read about the importance of free play. That time when children are prohibited from screens, learning agendas are tabled and intensive parental supervision set aside. If you’re like me, you have every good intention to take your child up into the mountains at least three times a week where they can walk barefoot through a running stream and talk with small woodland creatures.

Yet, for myself these good intentions are hard to make into reality. My sense of urgency to provide “free play” for my children is intensified by the romantic narratives I hear from my peers about running unhindered in the neighborhood until dusk, only to be called home for super. If generations have grown up with this gift of freedom, why is it so darn hard to provide this liberty to my children today?

I look to my own growing up as a reminder as to why I resist authentically giving over to free play with my own children. I am the middle child of six, growing up my mother was greatly outnumbered. To make matters worse, she babysat five other children to help provide for our family. She really had no choice when it came to “giving us time to play on our own”.

During the summer, I recall my mother literally taking a broom and sweeping all eleven of us into the backyard. While the yard was locked, our time together was completely independent. Just as various books about free play promise, left to our devices we took to turning over logs to search for insects, climbed the Chinese Elm that refused to die (despite countless efforts to kill it), and spent hours lying on our backs searching for images in the clouds.

While this may at first appear quixotic, what my mother remembers most (and reminds her grown children of often) was how destructive we became during these unrestricted hours. After long stretches of boredom there were wild schemes of escape to China.

The eleven of us would take my family’s single shovel and dig until our hole became too deep. The shovel was handed off to a taller child. Inevitably, one digger took too much time and the coveted shovel became a source of great contention. A struggle would ensue until someone got a whack on the head.

During our autonomy the eleven of us were also known to have pulled down curtains to use as marriage garb, colored a mural on the side of the house with melting crayons, lugged up the fence to reuse the slats for a fort, ruined the garden looking for ground trolls, and hauled everything out of the shed searching for hidden ghosts and demonically possessed lawn tools. When we couldn’t find any, we decided to deconstruct the possessions littering the lawn and then repurpose them by frankensteining the various parts together. Just like with the shovel, our exploits included Lord of the Flies politicking as we fought to determine social standing and vie for positions of creative power. There were perpetual battles.

All of this “creativity” came at a great emotional and financial cost to my mother, who made desperate attempts to guide our play. Truth be told, she knew she wouldn’t win from the onset, there were just too many of us. She didn’t really have a choice to do anything differently. I have a sense that many of us who were left to our own devices were not left alone intentionally. Like my mother, there just weren’t many choices. Today, many parents have the luxury of being intentional and we have a myriad of choices and activities in which we can engage our children. In turn, our choices and thoughtful intentions sometimes get us into trouble.

Why bring up my scarred mother and destructive past when discussing free play? Simply put, free play isn’t easy. Sure, the recipe seems simple: throw a few kids together in a yard and let ‘em play. Yet, my own experience parenting mirrors much of what I saw growing up. Free play in my home often leads to boredom which then leads to one child antagonizing another until blood is drawn. Once a truce is established there is a new drama, usually calling for me or my partner to swim our way through a sea of cushions, blankets, books, toys, and papers to rescue our small dog who, according to our seven year old, “Wasn’t crying to get out, he actually was crying because he really wanted to be buried.” The reconnaissance mission for the dog predictably ends with a requisite for assistance navigating a way out of the labyrinth of collected items.

Ironically, what took seconds to construct takes hours of emotional struggle to clean up. Sometimes… most times… it’s just easier to give the kids an iPad and let them quietly engage with Curious George or the Octonauts. There are no messes, few fights, and the drug of the screen keeps the children relatively calm allowing for some semblance of a meal to be spread out on the table.

Why do it? Why allow our children to run amuck and destroy the world we have so painstakingly pieced together? Kim John Payne, author of Simplicity Parenting advices, “There is often a storm before creative flow. And parents must be willing to wait out the storm to get our children to the highest level of innovative play.”

As an educator who spends time talking to high school students about climate change, shifts in the political environment, and rapidly changing economies due to disruptive technology, I am fully aware of the burden placed on my children’s shoulders to be creative problem solvers. My children will be inheriting an unprecedented time and space. Coming from a youth of VCRs and pagers, I cannot even begin to understand the innovation it will take for my children to sustain themselves in the future.

While hunger to cave to the calm of a screen is real, I understand the need to find the iron will to let my children “go”, I mean truly let their imaginations potentially wreak havoc with autonomy. This is the sacrifice that I must be willing to make if my children are going to be equipped with the type of “out of the box” thinking needed to problem solve the issues that their generation will face.

My hat is off to the brave parents who give no second thought to sending their little one out into the wild to cut down trees with a sharpened ax on their own. While I am not quite ready for that level of “letting go”, I am prepared to find my weed Wacker being used as a flag pole with my youngest child strung from the top of it scouting for pirates.

So, if you find me walking down the street taking shots of Pepto, please realize, I am probably with my children out somewhere for a little “free play”. By all means, join me, but be prepared to look away as large stones are lobbed, muddy fingers are jammed into open mouths and sharp sticks are broken from ailing trees. Remember, we are on a mission to get ready for the future and there are wild adventures to be had while in training.