Free play

One night last week I came home from work and heard unfamiliar sounds in my back yard.  There was a whiffle ball game going on in the back yard next to mine.  Five or six children played on their own and their voices drifted over to my screened porch.  Every now and then the game spilled into my not so neat perennial garden when the fielders missed a ball.  “To your left, Matt, in the tall flowers,” I called.  He tiptoed over, found the ball, and resumed play.  It’s clear to me that it’s more pleasant to have children playing in the neighborhood than to have a pristine garden.  No six foot fence separates our yards. By dusk all was quiet.  I presume they went inside for a bath and bedtime.

Last week was the first full week of summer for children in my town.  Many summer programs start this coming week.  Last week, there were lots of opportunities to hear parents and children hanging out.  Prior to this the children were busy with homework after supper.  If they weren’t  doing homework, they might have been at a baseball or soccer practice.  Maybe they were practicing their instruments.  They were busy.

But last week there was leisure for many families.  Parents did not need to get the children up and out by a certain time.  And children could play outside on their own.  I heard from families I work with that the relaxed schedule was very welcome.  Of course, not every family can enjoy this respite.  Many working parents must have their children in some sort of care unless they are on vacation.

Nonetheless, last week gave me a welcome reminder of the benefits of free play.  I could hear children settling disputes on their own, developing their social skills.  I heard parents playing ball with their children and teaching them the finer points of sports. I heard older children teaching the younger ones the rules of the game. All of these facilitate child development.  Children develop socially and cognitively through play.  Many of these same processes happen in organized activities.  But we tend to forget that children can experience these benefits without the structure of a sports team or a dance class.  Our lives are not organized to allow this much of the time.  Next week it is likely that most of these children will be in organized camp activities where they will continue to experience the benefits of play, I hope.

Last week it was a pleasure to hear and see children and families enjoying summer play.


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