In the Field of Play

Kids in a field -- it’s a snapshot of childhood. But something has changed, radically changed, in the way play plays out on grassy spaces. Those fields now all have stripes.

League play has become the way kids get their exercise today. Children as young as four are involved in weekly practice and Saturday games. There’s much that kids can gain from that: learning to be a part of a team, improving gross-motor skills, and developing stamina are very beneficial to kids.

But they’ve lost much more than they’ve gained.

A generation ago, kids played outside for hours every day after school; now they practice a few hours a week. Kids used to eat meals with their family; now they wolf down food while pulling on their cleats. Pick-up neighborhood games allowed for a wide range of abilities; teams now are a fast track for talented athletes. The lesser-skilled kids simply drop out, returning to a life of inactivity. In all the discussion about rampant obesity among children, it’s time to question how team sports add to the problem.

Equally important, creativity has disappeared from play. Organized sports don’t allow for any bending of the game. In backyard ball, rules changed with the field. Tag games constantly mutated with the ideas of new players or equipment. Yes, you risked the constant whine of “no fair!” But you left owning the game. Fun left you breathless and inventive.

I know it’s not going to change any time soon, if ever. League sports are here to stay.
So I offer a practical solution. Open your yard to be a last bastion of free-play. Let your child invite over some friends. Load them up with Frisbees, balls, bats, squirt-guns. And let the games begin.

You may have to get things rolling. Without a coach, kids might not know what to do. So give them a couple versions of ball-tag to start. Then promise them lemonade only after they’ve worked up a sweat. Blow a whistle occasionally from the kitchen window just to comfort them.
Outdoor play is supposed to be free and fun. Give kids the chance, and they’ll take that ball and run.

Bruce Van Patter

all material ©2005 Bruce Van Patter