At this point, every parent in America has probably heard how important free play is for their kids. If you haven’t, there’s this article and this article and this article just to name a few. We know that children need to explore, run, climb, build, make up games, take risks, and generally interact with other children so they can develop normally and avoid becoming 30-year-old unemployed basement dwellers.
We got it! Free play is critical. But the question is how do we give it to them? Especially when our parenting culture and our schools put up huge barriers to play–from longer school days and piles of homework to over-scheduled friends and playgrounds so safe they’re boring.
I’ve been grappling with this problem ever since moving back to the US from Germany, a country that highly values children’s free play, and I have several simple strategies that might help other American parents:
Turn your backyard into a junkyard. If there are no great playgrounds or wild spaces in
your neighborhood, you can make one of your very own, on the cheap–as long as you can tolerate some mess. You may have read how a Silicon Valley father turned his yard into a playground. It’s quite amazing—and must have cost a bundle. This is the low-rent
version. The fanciest things we have are a tire-swing and a make-shift zipline made of sailboat halyard and a pulley. Everything else is junk: boxes and boards to build forts, old plastic bottles to make “potions” in, sticks to make swords and bows, old buckets and rocks to “bowl” with. A neighbor kid visiting our house once declared “Everything in your backyard is broken!” It was a fair assessment, but I also couldn’t help but notice how much he enjoyed playing there.
Embrace big institutional “after-school care.” It’s where all the playing is happening these days. Most schools have killed recess, and I’ve yet to find a neighborhood that still has big groups of kids playing outside. After-school care, especially if it has a lot of kids enrolled and a big play area, is about the best chance kids have to play with other kids today. If you’re a family with two-full-time working parents and have to do this, lose the guilt—you’re doing your child some good by enrolling them in aftercare. If you don’t need after-school care, consider doing it anyway, not for your sake but for theirs.
Start an “unscheduled day” at your school or neighborhood park. I’m stealing this one from free-range kid founder Lenore Skenazy, but it’s a brilliant idea. Declare that your kids will be at the park for a few hours on the same day, every week. Get a few other families to commit and spread the word. Bring some sport things, fort-building materials, or just let the kids figure out what to do together. They’re actually quite good at it.
Remove distractions to play: Don’t over-schedule children with organized sports, oboe lessons, and Mandarin classes. These things are great in moderation, but not when they consume all their extra hours. Speaking of, rebel against homework—especially in the lower grades. No one has proven that homework in first and second grade helps anyone. As a parent you can just say ‘no.’ You have that power. Limit screen time—tablets, video games, and TV are addictive for children (and adults too)—I’m not a fan of an outright ban, but screens are like entertainment-candy, great treats for special times, but not good for constant, regular consumption.
Don’t let the weather stop you: Wet muddy yards can be fun, and snow has got to be one of the best toys nature ever made. I realize right now I’m blogging in February from the comfort of California, but I grew up in Buffalo, New York so I know what I’m talking about. My mother often turned off the TV pointed at the snowsuits and told me to get outside. So invest in some winter wear and in a good pair of rain-pants and boots– as the Germans say “There is no such thing as bad weather only unsuitable clothing.”
You can read more about what I learned from German parents in this article (PDF) from The Times and this article from Time.com. Stay tuned as well for my book, Achtung Baby! to be released in early 2018.
Top: Children playing by David Robert Bliwas
Bottom right: Kids making snowman by Homayon Zeary