Summer Semester: Get Out and Play

By Christopher Byrne

A lot has changed since I was a kid. You probably don’t want to know this, but we had ready access to cherry bombs, M-80s and other things that blew up. A pack of matches, the gas can out of the garage and a bucket of army men was enough to entertain us for the afternoon. Left to our own devices, we had many a wonderful day, and without ongoing parental supervision, well…let’s just say it’s a good thing we all have all our fingers and toes. But it does strike me as alarming that with all the constant mini-explosions going on in our neighborhood (53 kids under 13 spread out over two city blocks), that no adults ever seemed to be worried. “Be careful,” “Outdoors with that,” and “Not near the cat,” were the most dire warnings we got. We were turned outdoors after breakfast, expected back for lunch and had to come in after the street lights came on.  It’s not like that today.

People Dan O'BrienOne thing, though, was that as “wild” as we were—we were good kids—but we were active! Bikes, sports, climbing, racing around, playing “war” and generally being on the go from morning till night. (We also took time to read and relax, but that’s next week’s column.) We ran in groups of 4, 6 or more, and games of hide and seek that involved a dozen or more kids were common. (We actually played in the Mount Salem Cemetery at the head of the street and called the game “Graveyard Creeps.”)

That, as they say, was then.

Today’s kids have fewer options to be as active, and don’t have a ready-made gang of kids out the back door as often. Organized activities take up more time, with camps, school programs and the like. And the computer and video game consoles are time suckers. It’s hard because many parents are caught between the desire to tell kids to get out and play and the desire to keep them well supervised.

But kids also need to get out and play, particularly with their peers. They need the physical activity, and they need the opportunity to resolve issues and share experiences with their peers. They need to have an argument or two, to test boundaries because all of these begin to give them a sense of themselves both in the context of their world and as themselves.

dan-head-bestI recently had the chance to talk to the famous decathlete Dan O’Brien. O’Brien took gold in the decathlon in the 1996 summer Olympics in Atlanta, and won many titles after that. Today, he is an outspoken advocate for kids’ fitness, and recently teamed up with Crayola to break the world hopscotch record. (Bet you didn’t’ know that existed?)

While O’Brien made his name in organized athletics, he believes that kids need open-ended play and they need to be imaginatively engaged in order to stay active.

“There’s a lot of structure out there to sports and play, and that’s when kids lose interest.” O’Brien say. Organized activities, he adds, can often have too much structure and too many rules and doesn’t allow space for the children’s imaginations.  “Get them outside and they make up their own games and their own rules,” he advises.

He says, that a goal should be to all kids “to be present and be in the moment and finding ways to be creative, but we often take that away from kids and expect them to get in shape and get better.

“Kids are going to have fun if you let them be creative, and that was the one thing I learned from Crayola. There were 30 kids who showed up and they were given a whole bunch of sidewalk chalk and they were told to go for it. They had written on every level surface, and they were running around. Some were athletic, some were artistic, and every kid found something to do. I really could see that it was just letting them do what they wanted to do instead of just what they should do.”

People Dan O'BrienThat pretty much describes the experience of my peers and myself. We made up all kinds of games. We argued and made up. We were mortal enemies and best friends—sometimes in the same afternoon. Without adults telling us “how” or “when,” we filled the days with activity.

Years later, my mother admitted that her heart was in her throat when she came outside and saw my friends Nina, Jim and me climbing around in a tree 20 feet off the ground, but she also trusted us to get down safely, which we did, and which we never doubted for a second.

It really is about calculated risks, and there may be some bumps and scrapes along the way. Even a few broken bones. Those all heal, but what’s built instead is a sense of confidence and an ability to create one’s own fun that lasts a lifetime.

However, I really do recommend keeping the gas can and matches locked up.

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