As a second-grader, my neighbor Ben and I decided to build a fort in the woods. Ben was in first grade and had recently moved in next door. Ben and I searched his family’s garage for a hammer and nails. We took a couple of small 2×4’s, and we planned to gather sticks. I brought my pocket knife. Two hours after entering the piney wood that boundaried our neighborhood, we had meandered well beyond any sense of location or direction and found ourselves yelling at each other through tears of fear, blaming one another for passing up the other’s chosen tree “back there.”
We were lost and thought we might die. In a larger wood, we could have, I suppose. Hours after we had left on our adventure, no fort had been built, and we hadn’t noticed dropping the hammer, the nails, or the 2×4’s in the dirt some way back, when suddenly I heard the hum of an engine and then the features of a home in the distance.
We ran that 20 yards or so into the yard where an older man was cutting rows back-and-forth on his riding lawn mower. We explained what had happened much faster than he could understand, so he took us into his wife, who gave us chocolate chip cookies and milk and called our mothers before directing her husband to drive us home.
We learned when we arrived home that neither my mother or father nor his mother or father had any clue we were even gone. We played by ourselves in our neighborhood all the time, riding bikes mostly, and they had no reason to suspect we were “missing.”
The Perfect Developmental Balance
If I say I don’t know where my daughters are, what I mean is, they’re downstairs; if I don’t know what they’re up to, I mean they could be playing dolls, reading, writing, dancing, or working on a self-initiated craft project. Or fighting. They could be fighting. But there is no chance that my daughters would ever be out walking around with a neighbor kid with a hammer, some nails, a pocket knife, and a couple of 2×4’s in the local forest. There’s no chance at their age they could be out riding on a three-wheeler on dirt trails popping wheelies over large tree roots hanging on for dear life with their older brother driving. They don’t have an older brother. But I did. And, I did.
I think of generations of children before my own as having had more opportunities for free, independent play. This generalization ignores the potentially negligent parental behavior and undermines progressive efforts by those parents who shore up risk and thoroughly engage in their children’s developmental process. It is, indeed, important to ensure the safety of our children where we can. On the other hand, isn’t it possible to swing the pendulum to another extreme and withhold too much freedom?
On a continuum from benign neglect to structured activity to parental engagement, I’m not quite sure how to strike a perfect developmental balance, but I do know this: we now live in the digital age. And, in spite of its virtues, it has diminished our capacity for responsive attunement to our children’s tireless energies and budding desires. Perhaps that is not all bad. Our children need both playful interaction and free, independent play. Ultimately, what is undeniable is that learning, as well as bonding, best occur when there is a significant component of play and reciprocal interaction.
C.S. Lewis’s mother died when he was two years old, and his father wasn’t one to play much. Meanwhile little Clive—known as “Jack” for the rest of his life after begin calling himself after his dog Jacksie, who was run over by one of the first cars in Northern Ireland, when he was four years old—created with magazine clip-outs and tape a world called “Animal-Land” in one room of the family home. Over the next few years, he and his brother wrote stories about a fictional world based on Animal-Land called “Boxen.” And, as you may already know, he would later write seven more books influenced by those early worlds while a professor at Oxford University.
A few years ago, my daughters were restless, so I turned a couple of couches on their side and engineered a magnificent tent with an assortment of rods, a ladder, blankets, pillows, and a string of lights. That tent stayed up for weeks and prompted our own adventure into Narnia—we actually read a couple of Lewis’s Chronicles inside of it. They will remember this forever. Reading is critical in stoking the embers of the imagination, yet let me be clear—we don’t teach our children how to play. Rather, as with Lewis himself, an innate curiosity and creativity drive their own wildly imaginative masquerades into make-believe. Such play not only deters future boredom and gloom, promoting resilience; it also catalyzes developing competencies.
You’re a parent. How, then, should you live?!
Today, increasingly, parenting goes the way of education, in that it feels increasingly standardized, micromanaged, pressured, busy, tedious. Why has the culture of parenting changed, or is it even fair to say that, broadly, it has?
Many parents don’t know how to play. Many of us live overly task-oriented lives. In our free time, we know how to scroll and click, technological voyeurs as we are. We live in a culture where every morsel of our time and energy is to be utilized, so we sprint forward through days and decades, finding ourselves in a kind of Matrix where we search Pinterest boards for tools to achieve Instagram and Facebook validation. Positive feedback loops increase both our desire for and our response to the kind of external validation we can find through social media, and we increasingly run the risks of finding it there. We need more proximal relationships and more playful lives.
It is not my intention nor is it fair to trivialize any aspect of the parenting enterprise or to speak of it in broad strokes as I have here without acknowledging the very real and modern complexities of parenting. I do so acknowledge. That being said…
You’re an adult. Go play with a kid!
Getting outside for an hour or two disturbs the monotony of the mundane, the routine, and the digital. The outdoors have a way of cleansing thoughts and emotions, sometimes leading to unexpected conversation and connection. In the best of cases, spending quality time together leads to storytelling, laughter, and other forms of playfulness—relationship-building catalysts that spur not only a deeper sense of connection but also enrich development. And that goes for the adults as well, of course. As we lower our guards and heighten our senses, we all learn and grow.
Like breathing, eating, and sleeping, we all—especially our kids—have a built-in need to be playful. Life is a kind of playground. If a child isn’t good at playful interaction, he or she may be more likely to withdraw from social situations. Being good at playful interaction depends on continual modeling and practice. Play is critical for healthy development. There are no substitutes. Everything we do can be permeated with an attitude that is playful. Albert Einstein has been quoted as having once stated,
“Play is the highest form of research.”
Playfulness also signals safety. Research psychologists from Texas Christian University instructed, “Shared silliness, laughter, and games all demonstrate to a child that you mean no harm (Purvis, Cross, & Sunshine, 2007, The Connected Child).”
Playfulness can unlock and promote language skill development, social skills, and even attachment security. Time dedicated to freewheeling, spontaneous play is eroding, and everything from sadness, worry, boredom, or worse flood in behind. You’ve seen this in action, right? If we’re being honest, don’t we see it in ourselves?
Many of our lives are too crowded for regular and unadulterated play. To the extent that we live playless lives, human aptitudes such as spontaneity, creativity, and cooperation fall in decline. It is our responsibility to catalyze for our children the kind of playfulness we all need in our lives, and let them guide the play whenever possible. By the end of the day, let’s be sure to give our children the time, space, and resources they need to play well, and let’s also be sure we’ve wasted some time being playful together.