School until 3:00pm. Soccer at 3:30 pm. Dance at 6:30 pm. Quick dinner and homework until 9:30 pm. Bedtime. Repeat. Over and over again. Check with almost any parent today, and they can recite a litany of their child’s structured activities, all designed to enrich the childhood experience. And it does. But there’s something else to consider. Time to play. Not just any play.
Being a kid is now hard work, with long hours put in everyday.
Come with me for a moment, and take a look at something I don’t see as much as I once did. Kids playing outside. Not in the community soccer club. Not at a t-ball game. Not at a swim meet. Just playing outside, on the sidewalk, with other neighborhood children.
Small communities where everyone knows everyone have an advantage here. It’s highly likely if your child is doing something amazing, one of the neighborhood parents will be there to cheer her on. It’s also likely if your child is about to try something dangerous, that same parent is probably there to add a word of caution.
Unstructured play has a name now, but it used to be an everyday occurrence.
Letting Go is Hard But Important
Raise your hand if you remember your mom telling you to “just go out and play.” It wasn’t something anyone planned, or managed. It just was. And it still can be.
As parents, our job is to provide a safe, welcoming space.
The hard part is stepping back and allowing the kids to entertain themselves, to be bored sometimes, to use their imaginations to create something we never would consider.
Although my son had plenty of traditional toys when he was younger, his toy of choice was an old boat rope. Long enough to throw up over a tree branch, he could hold both ends and swing over imaginary dangers. Arranged on the driveway, he could create a course for his bike. With two friends, they could limbo underneath it. They could tie it to a bucket and pull snacks up to the tree house.
The possibilities were endless.
The local town park is a happening place. At first glance, there appear to be two brightly colored plastic and metal swinging, climbing, hiding structures. Not so, if you’re of a certain age. One is a castle, defending against a pirate ship. All hands are on deck. A princess calls from the castle ramparts, requesting help to save her home.
Perspective is an essential part of unstructured play.
Buckets of sidewalk chalk sit by many of the front doors in a small town. At one house, the neighbors have used chalk to craft a “welcome home” mural. There’s a hopscotch board drawn in the street. All the basketball hoops face out, next to driveways, inviting any and all to play.
Ears perk up when someone yells, “Car!” Everyone scatters to the curb and waves the car through, greeting the driver and smiling before the play resumes.
Unstructured play, by its definition, doesn’t have a to-do list. It’s a time to unplug, allow the mind to wander and think, “what if…” and then try it. If you can provide an environment and stop yourself from providing suggestions, you’ll be on the right track. If you can make it through the sighs and grumblings of “there’s nothing to do,” you’re golden.
And then, the magic begins. Go out and see for yourself. Send your kids out to play.
Deborah Fingerlow is a writer, traveler and explorer seeking adventures both large and small. Parent to one daughter in college and one teenage son in cyber-school. Food allergies play a significant role in day to day life decisions, as does the support network of a small town in south central Pennsylvania. Neighbors are known by their first names and a walking district encourages community engagement. Business to business communications and the development of authentic connections are Deborah Fingerlow’s superpowers. You can find her at the local farmer’s market, therapy dogs in tow, camera in hand. You can find her on twitter @debfingerlow and on facebook @connect.converse.write