Organized Sports Aren’t Play

“When the fun goes out of play, most often so does the learning” –Joanne E. Oppenheim

I recently had coffee with a child psychologist friend. She told me her practice is packed with parents desperate to find solutions for their unhappy children. She sees six-year-olds who are anxious and withdrawn. Eight-year-olds who are angry and cynical. Preteens who suffer from perfectionism, from depression, from self-harming behaviors.

I nodded sorrowfully.

We discussed today’s childhood stressors, from too much homework to too little family time. We agreed kids need more opportunities for play. But I couldn’t hide my surprise when she said she often advised parents to get their kids into sports.

My eyebrows went up and I probably ranted a little. I sputtered that organized sports aren’t really play. Play is self-directed fun that exists for its own sake. While organized sports can be and often are fun, they’re still highly structured programs run by adults. I asked my friend if she prescribed play, why not free play?

She agreed in principle. “But there are no kids running around outside any more,” she said gently, “We have to funnel them into sports so at least they get a semblance of play.”

That may be the status quo in many areas, but it doesn’t have to be.

Sports, like play, used to belong entirely to kids. Just a few generations ago there weren’t many organized sports programs, especially for kids younger than teens. Kids loved sports with just as much fervor as they do today, but to engage in them they simply went outside, found a few other kids, and played.

Organized competitions for boys began to rise in the 19th century following the emergence of compulsory education. The school day itself restructured children’s lives, separating educational time from free time. Adults began to more seriously consider how kids used those out-of-school hours. By the early part of the 20th century, increasing numbers of immigrant children playing on city streets got the attention of reformers. Along with an extraordinary new movement to create urban playgrounds, and organizations that took poor children to the country for nature experiences, came the idea that play should be supervised, particularly for boys from the poorest families. As historian Robert Halpern explains, the physical challenges of sports were thought to prepare the poorest classes to be physical laborers in the emerging industrial society.

According to Until It Hurts by Mark Hyman, the forerunners of today’s supervised youth teams were originally made up of mostly poor and lower-middle-class children, and were intended to ameliorate social conditions. Leagues were started by organizations such as the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) which used sports to promote religion more than to advance athletics as well as groups advocating organized sports as way to save boys from vice. Little League took hold during the Depression, slotting youthful energy toward sports in a time when the job outlook wasn’t good.

Until a few generations ago most middle-class children in the U.S. didn’t engage in organized sports outside of the school day until they were in their early teens, and then usually in school sponsored teams. A middle-class emphasis on adult-run sports ratcheted up right around the time that salaries for professional teams began to skyrocket. Parents and coaches promoted the idea that talented kids had a shot at professional sports if they started early, worked hard, and were sprinkled with enough “believe in yourself” magic. Sports bulged beyond traditional seasons with training camps, private coaching, and travel games.

Parents also began to equate success in athletics with a better chance of admission to choice colleges and universities. This motivated parents to start their kids in organized sports at younger and younger ages, hoping to give them a competitive edge over other kids.

Now, organized sports have become standard for children as young as four years old, sometimes younger. A distinguishing factor in early entry into competitive sports is monetary—kids are most likely to start young when annual household income is over $100,000. Already in the U.S., 60 percent of boys and 47 percent of girls are on a team by age six.

Sports participation dominates in the suburbs where boys are likely to play on three or more teams. Parents are expected to buy specialized gear, drive children to practices, attend games, participate in fundraisers, plus pay for skill clinics and off-season camps. Enthusiastic participants can find extraordinary positives in sports, particularly in the preteen and teen years, but is it worth starting so young and becoming so heavily committed? Childhood time for free play is sacrificed. So is family time. Is all this necessary?

Apparently not. Here are some reasons why.

  1. Starting kids as early as possible does not give them an advantage over other kids. In fact, notes Brooke de Lench in Home Team Advantage, it has been found to diminish their eagerness to participate.
  2. De Lench also finds that preschoolers who take part in sports programs are not more likely to be high school athletes than kids who don’t.
  3. Correctly identifying who is genuinely talented at a young age is extremely complicated. Studies reported by the National Institutes of Health show the earlier a child is identified as having talent, the more uncertain is the prediction of his or her future success.
  4. Sports, even in the early elementary years, can be intense. Hours devoted to practice sessions, clinics, games, and tournaments chew up children’s free time. But pressure doesn’t create champions. When educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom interviewed world-class tennis players about their early years, they talked about not being any better than other players. They remembered their parents supported them without taking over and their coaches made tennis fun. Their own enthusiasm drove them forward. And sports psychologists remind parents that young children aren’t able to differentiate performance from who they are as people.
  5. The bullying coach isn’t just a meme. It’s all too often a reality, one that’s harmful not only for young children but older athletes as well. Laurence Steinberg, an expert on adolescent psychology, explains in The Atlantic that the pressure on kids causes serious performance anxiety. Critical, sometimes demeaning language directed at kids is far more powerful than adults realize, particularly during the teen years when the brain is more highly attuned to emotional arousal. “When an adult is delivering a message to an adolescent, if it’s in an emotional way,” Steinberg says, “the kids will pay more attention to the way the message is delivered than to what is in the message.”
  6. Negative, high pressure coaching doesn’t improve young athletes’ performances. A study of coaching techniques published in the journal Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology concluded, “…abusive coaching behaviors can bring out the worst in their team by fostering an atmosphere where student-athletes are more willing to cheat, less inclusive toward others, and less satisfied…”
  7. study of over 1,600 high school athletes published in the Journal of Adolescent Health noted that teenage boys who participate in football and/or basketball are almost twice as likely to have acted abusively to their dating partners. Researchers found that high school athletics can reinforce “hyper-masculine attitudes,” and boys who hold such attitudes were up to three times more likely to abuse their girlfriends. Another study of nearly 100,000 high school students, published in American Sociological Review, found that players of contact-heavy sports, particularly football, were nearly 40 percent more likely to act aggressively off the field than non-athletes.These aren’t necessarily causative factors but are a reason for concern.
  8. As young athletes get older, they’re increasingly likely to drop out. Almost 75 percent of kids who play organized sports quit by age 13, according to Steven Henson on the blog The Post Game. Their reasons? Nearly 40 percent list as their top reason, “I was not having fun.” Even more young people drop out in their freshman year, when stats show there’s another 26 percent drop in the number of students who play.
  9. The odds, overall, of a high school athlete landing a college scholarship at an NCAA school stands at two percent. That’s true even for youth whose parents have spent heavily on high-level youth sport for years.
  10. The cost of competing is increasingly likely to consume up to 10.5 percent of gross family income. Parents on average pay per player, per year (in 2015 dollars): $2,200 to $4,000 to participate in travel soccer, $2,600 in hockey, $5,000 to more than $10,000 for gymnastics. “
  11. All this spending ratchets up the pressure on young athletes. When college players were asked to talk about their worst memory from playing youth sports, overwhelmingly they answered, “The ride home from games with my parents.” Apparently even the most well-intentioned parents weigh in with their opinions rather than allowing the child to own his or her own experience. It’s significant to note that the same survey of players found the best comment by parents was very simply, “I love to watch you play.”
  12. Then there are the health consequences. Reports of injuries are up, with 2.6 million emergency room visits a year, and there’s evidence that concussions and other head trauma cause lasting damage. In soccer alone, kids are playing more competitively more months of the year, leading to a 74 percent increase in injuries severe enough to be treated in a hospital ER. Some of that may be an increased awareness of head injuries, but removing such injuries from the data still reveals a 60 percent increase in ER visits due to youth soccer. Imaging studies published in the journal Radiologyshows football players younger than 13, with no concussion symptoms, still show signs associated with traumatic brain injury. A large-scale study in Sweden found teen concussions appear to increase the risk of developing multiple sclerosis later in life. Another study found children who started playing football before the age of 12 manifested mental health problems later in life at much higher rates than people who took up the sport later. They were twice as likely to have issues with initiative, problem solving, and apathy and three times more likely to have symptoms of depression. The results were not related to total number of years in football or number of concussions reported, but specifically related to early experience playing football. Although it’s rarely studied, there is some evidence that children are much more likely to suffer serious harm in adult-run sports than in pick-up games.
  13. One reason parents encourage sports is to boost a child’s health, yet obesity is on the increase. From the early 1970s to now, the prevalence of obesity in children ages 6 to 11 has quadrupled; for those ages 12 to 19 years it has tripled. There are certainly many causes, including more processed foods in the diet and more estrogen-mimicking hormones in the environment, but organized sports may be a factor. If you compare kids running and climbing freely on a playground with kids the same age running laps to warm up for soccer practice, you see eager full body movement reduced to an obligation. Children are normally full of energy. They play energetically for the sheer joy of movement. But when that activity is channeled into practices and games, kids may be turned off from engaging in physical activity outside of sports, instead slumping into a chair like workers after a busy factory shift. We know that external rewards diminish intrinsic motivation. For example, rewarding kids for reading severely diminishes their motivation to read for pleasure. It’s worth considering that sports might have a similar effect on some young people’s desire to engage in other forms of physical play.
  14. Participation in organized youth sports is correlated with lower overall creativity while playing informal games is significantly related to overall creativity. One study compared the sort of childhood leisure activities students engaged in with their levels of creativity as assessed on the Abbreviated Torrance Test for Adults. The most highly creative students spent only about two hours a week in structured sports throughout their school-age years.

It’s not an all or nothing proposition. Sports brim with benefits. They promote fitness. They can provide extraordinary lessons in teamwork, persistence, and handling disappointment. That’s true of organized sports, but it’s also true of informal sports. The issue is really about what adults have done to co-opt and overrun the games kids once organized on their own to play with each other, and how we can leave more time in children’s lives to play as they choose.

Loose Parts: What You Need To Know

“A child’s greatest achievements are possible in play, achievements that tomorrow will become her basic level of real action and morality.” ~Lev Vygotsky

You probably know the old cliché about kids playing longer with the box a toy came in then the toy itself? It’s true. Child development experts in the UK asked 2,000 parents to compare their children’s interactions when they used devices, toys, and free play items like cardboard boxes. Almost twice as many parents said their children preferred playing with boxes than gadgets and 46 percent of children enjoyed playing with boxes instead of other toys and games.

Plain cardboard boxes are enticing because they’re free-form playthings. Beyond classic toys like wooden blocks, many best-selling toys don’t spark much open-ended fun. That’s because children play in less creative ways with toys based on popular movies or shows and play more passively with toys that make sounds, move, or otherwise perform. On the other hand, a wrapping paper tube can become nearly anything — a cane, magic wand, snake, lightsaber, boundary marker, whatever imagination chooses.

The natural world is full of playthings. Sand, sticks, dirt, water, pinecones, leaves, logs, flowers, and rocks have inspired children’s imaginations for ages.

So can pretty much anything kids are able to lift, drag, climb on, line up, dig with, join together, pour, dump out, take apart, swing around, push, or otherwise use as curiosity leads them. That is, as long as they have two key elements in their favor:

  • children are given permission
  • children are afforded the time.

Playground designers Vicki Stoecklin and Randy White write,

“The world once offered thousands of delights of free play to children. Children used to have access to the world at large, whether it was the sidewalks, streets, alleys, vacant lots and parks of the inner city or the fields, forests, streams and yards of suburbia and the rural countryside. Children could play, explore and interact with the natural world with little or no restriction or supervision.

Research on children’s preferences shows that if children had the design skills to do so, their creations would be completely different from the areas called playgrounds that most adults design for them. Outdoor spaces designed by children would not only be fully naturalized with plants, trees, flowers, water, dirt, sand, mud, animals and insects, but also would be rich with a wide variety of play opportunities of every imaginable type. If children could design their outdoor play spaces, they would be rich developmentally appropriate learning environments where children would want to stay all day.”

Back in 1971, architect Simon Nicholson wrote an article in Landscape Architect titled “How Not to Cheat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts.” He contended that most of us grow up, are educated, and live the rest of our lives in environments that stymie the imagination. He describes them as “static and impossible to play around with.” Instead of taking part in real planning and using real materials, “…children and adults and the community have been grossly cheated and the educational-cultural system makes sure that they hold the belief that this is ‘right.'”

For most of us the problem starts with tight restrictions in childhood.

  • As kids, we’re not allowed to build or make things except within certain tight parameters (following instructions for a craft project is permitted, upending chairs to make an obstacle course is not).
  • We can’t experiment with variables in unexpected ways (“Don’t make a mess!”).
  • And we have limited experiences with exploration and discovery (“Stay on the playground, no climbing the trees.”). This inhibits creativity and inventiveness early on.

Sand belongs in the sandbox?

Mr. Nicholson’s theory of loose parts is this,

“In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.” In other words, kids have nearly infinite ways to play when they have access to materials that can be used beyond a specific purpose.

Young children often use playthings as if they’re loose parts. A child combines a toy dinosaur, plastic teacup, dress-up scarf, and a few blocks into vivid and fully realized play on his own. Rules like keeping the tea cups with the tea set and putting away all the blocks before getting out another toy may keep the room neater but it also cuts down on much wider possibilities for play.

Kids (all of us, really) are more inventive and playful when our environments offer lots of variables. Open-ended materials let us transform simple materials into complex ideas. We play at what we’re most drawn to understand, right at the tantalizing edge of challenge, in ways unique to each of us. Recognizing this, more and more day care centers, museums, and playgrounds are starting to soften restrictions and offer loose parts for play.

Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh has a loose parts playground

At one day care center, children spend a large part of every day in a large fenced outdoor area, even when it’s raining. There’s no play structure with swings and slides, and few toys other than small wagons and plastic figures. There are, however, all sorts of loose parts for kids to use.

Two girl have made a bridge over a muddy area with a row of milk crates. They pound twigs with rocks until the wood crumbles into fibers, mix it with mud they scoop up with spoons, then arrange it on tree branch slices. A group of four-year-olds drag a few planks over some bicycle tires, running and jumping on the tippy boards in a game that seems to be about danger and rescue. Many kids are playing in little enclosures they’ve made from tarps hung over low tree branches or within a circle of logs. These child-made places are nearly empty some days, other days they’re brimming with activity. The most popular spot seems to be a large pile of dirt in a far corner, left there when a utility line had to be dug up and repaired. Some kids pour rivulets of water from the top of the pile, watching it snake down the uneven surface. Others put sticks in the dirt, arrange rocks on it, roll balls down it, and make ramps leading up to it. One little boy ran up and down the pile, but stopped when he saw he’d nearly stepped on another boy’s plastic figure. He crouched down next to him and they both buried, discovered, and reburied the toy a few times before flattening a path in the dirt with a measuring cup and letting the figure drive a measuring cup car on this de-facto road.

Here, children seem to require minimal involvement from their teachers. Instead they’re learning to play cooperatively — disputing and solving disputes, sorting and building, and mostly pretending. They’re also growing more physically adept while teaching themselves hands-on lessons about math and science. There’s no need for adults to keep loose parts organized, no need to step in and instruct, no need for a full day of pre-planned activities.

Similar to the center where Teacher Tom works. Visit his wise and instructive site for more.

Loose parts evoke more inventive play in older children as well. A two-year Australian study of primary school children found that adding objects like crates, buckets, pool noodles, and hay bales to their schoolyard caused sedentary behavior to drop by half while kids played with more enjoyment, imagination, and vigor.

Other studies have found that creativity and problem-solving soar when children use naturally occurring outdoor materials in their play, a contrast to adult-provided props so common in children’s lives. As researcher Dana Miller writes in an education journal article titled “The Seeds of Learning,

“Our research presents compelling evidence that providing children with open-ended natural materials fosters imagination, creativity, and symbolic (abstract) thinking. When they are working with open-ended materials children get to decide what those materials will become, explore interesting ways to manipulate the materials, and how their use of those materials may change during a dramatic play scenario. Children get to search for just the right material or object to represent something in their minds, and through that use and the functions they assign to those materials, children display their brilliance.”

It’s easy to incorporate loose parts into children’s days. There’s no need to buy specialized loose parts and carefully sort them into containers after play. Along with some classic open-ended toys like blocks, construction sets, dress-up, and art supplies we can say yes to all sorts of other free-form materials. Many are probably already at hand.

And pay attention to temporary circumstances that crop up, giving kids in your family and in the neighborhood the opportunity to play around a tree that fell in a storm, a pile of dirt left after construction, or the rainfall that turned your neighborhood park into a puddle-rich haven for imagination.

Keeping Playfulness Alive Into Teen Years

“When we play, we sense no limitations. In fact, when we are playing we are usually unaware of ourselves. Self-observation goes out the window. We forget…our potential foolishness, forget ourselves. We immerse ourselves in the act of play. And we become free.” ~Lenore Terr

Every other Saturday morning a talkative gaggle of 10 to 14-year-olds get together to create, stage, and film stories they’ve written. Today’s session is taking place on a rainy day in Hailey’s basement where the kids have plenty of room. Hailey’s cousins Dylan and Luke are the prop masters. The boys get what they need from a suitcase packed with hats, belts, jewelry, wallets, stick-on tattoos, sunglasses, a police badge, fake nails, and a few masks. A bigger suitcase will probably be necessary because they keep accumulating props.

Hailey’s dad, Jason, says he found the idea a few years ago in my book Free Range Learning and his daughter took off with it, inviting her cousins and friends to give a playwrights’ group a try. (Here’s more info on starting interest-based groups.)

The group didn’t start off all that smoothly. The kids seemed stymied about how to proceed and argued about whose ideas were best. The adults avoided intervening, instead leaving the young playwrights to their own devices. At first the kids decided to keep a list of proposed characters and plots, voting which to use. After a while they dropped the list because fresh ideas kept coming. They still argue sometimes while jockeying to better promote their opinions. (Those verbal tussles are actually an important part of gaining social skills.) Jason says they’ve learned to combine ideas and now more graciously share the glory with each other.

During their first year together the kids would agree on a rough story line, then act it out with improvised lines and actions. They’d climb up the backyard slide to elude kidnappers and perish in dramatically extended death throes, these scenes often mixed into incongruous plots like an underwater fashion show gone wrong. Their audience, mostly parents and grandparents, reliably applauded.

The last two years they’ve developed a more sophisticated process. They write scripts and practice them a few times, work on costumes and staging, set up lighting, then film their performances. They edit the videos to include music and credits. They’re so enthralled by devising and acting out stories that they’re frequently in touch with each other nearly between sessions, eagerly planning and honing their ideas. Recently their parents agreed to let them stay for longer sessions. Now all eight kids in the group arrive with packed lunches so they can work until through the afternoon.

Part of the pain of preteen and adolescent years has to do with a loss of playfulness. Too soon they leave behind the delights of play for a peer culture where being accepted often depends on superficial standards of attractiveness and popularity. Kids feel as if they’re under constant scrutiny by others in their age group; judged by how they look, what they own, what they say and do. When play is stripped away by the pressures of schoolwork and fitting in, something vital is lost.

Some kids manage to keep enthusiasm-friendly spaces in their lives where they’re free to be playful well into their teens. They may find the right circumstances in summer camps, school clubs, music groups, community theater, choir, volunteer programs, youth groups, and pick-up games. Sometimes they’re able to let themselves be playful when they’ve traveled to a new place. Sometimes they look forward to extended family get-togethers where they can hang out with younger relatives.

When I asked online for stories about play-friendly preteen and teen experiences I got all sorts of responses.

Many people said getting together with a specific intent enabled them to indulge in playfulness.

Jennifer Tejada: “My drama club was very helpful, assignments that required playfulness being the great equalizer among students.”

Malik: “There was nowhere to be myself until I started rapping with a few other guys. We let loose all our frustrations and aggravations, and it was like that freed us up to laugh like we’d never laughed before. I didn’t let it go at school or in the neighborhood but with those guys, rapping, I could be myself.”

Some describe a place that gave them the freedom to be playful and expressive. 

Cait : After school, in my middle school and high school years, I would go with my neighborhood friends (all ages, all different cliques) and walk in the conservation land that bordered our property. We would make forts, and as we got older we called them ‘nooks’ because forts were so passé. We would go on adventures, tell stories, climb trees…

And sometimes, play-safe places meant a break from daily routines.

Denise Bowman: “For me it was when I was away from peers, doing a trip with my mom. On vacation, away from home, with just us, I was much more able to engage in playfulness and not be so concerned on how I was ‘coming across.'”

Darren: “I lived for summer camp. For three summers, starting when I was 13, I went to a math camp at an urban college. I showed up nervous, acting like I didn’t care, wham, into a totally different world. I met kids from different countries, kids who were gay, kids who were aspies, all of us math geeks. We had fun I experienced nowhere else. When I’m down all I have to do is remember staying up all night to make a math tower (don’t ask) as a joke for our favorite instructor.”

Over the phone I can hear conversation and laughter spilling over in Hailey’s basement. The preteens have invited a few of their younger siblings to play roles in a production they’re calling “Clones, Inc.” Hailey’s dad Jason says the kids have coated Hailey’s toddler brother with lotion so he’ll look like a “freshly hatched” baby clone. Jason is surprised how eager the two-year-old is to comply. When he’s with the older kids, this toddler demonstrates far more patience than he normally does, even delivering the one line they’ve given him over and over till it’s just right.

Jason, who retreats upstairs to finish our call, says he can tell when they’re filming. The hubbub of enthusiasm gives way to expectant quiet that, even a floor away, sounds full of promise.

Boredom vs Free Play


boredom cures

“The cure for boredom is curiosity.  There is no cure for curiosity.”  ~Dorothy Parker

Eight-year-old twins Caleb and Ella used to complain of boredom on a daily basis. “There’s nothing to do,” they’d whine. “I’m bored!”

Their father Mateo didn’t remember being bored when he was growing up. Back in the early 90’s he rode his bike wherever he needed to go. A favorite place he and other kids played was a small creek behind an apartment building. At home he liked to read comics or tinker with projects of his own devising (including a phase of making anti-burglar projects after watching Home Alone). He says he honed his daydreaming skills when he was bored in school. Being an inattentive student didn’t bring him the best grades, but he’s now an aspiring cartoonist who relies on daydreaming for ideas.

Their mother Camila said her childhood wasn’t boring either. She remembered lots of imaginative play with her sister while their mother worked a full-time job at home. The girls played for hours as spies, queens, and magicians. They also liked to play office, mimicking their mother’s phone calls and typing. Camila says her friends preferred playing at her house because they were allowed to hang sheets off a tree branch for an impromptu theater, bake cupcakes, even paint and repaint their old wooden play structure in the back yard.

“If I moped around my mother would say, ‘Go out and play.’ It wasn’t a suggestion, it was a command,” Mateo said.  “Maybe that’s what made me so self-reliant.”

When Caleb and Ella complained of boredom their parents gestured to all the toys they owned and reminded their kids about sports practice and other activities. They urged their kids to go outside. But the kids tended to say, “There’s nothing I want to do!” and off they’d go to play a game on the tablet, watch the same movie again, or look for a snack.

Mateo and Camila wondered if they were unwittingly raising their kids to be bored. They worried the kids weren’t getting enough of that all-important free play.  Let’s consider these possibilities.

Excessive Distractions

This may start early on. There are so many mobiles, play gyms, bouncy seats, swings, and toys marketed to new parents that we’re led to believe they’re necessary, even though babies need little more than loving connections with caregivers and a safe place to explore. Nature insures that the newest humans are perfectly cued to observe and interact with the world around them. A three-month-old lying near a window can amuse herself looking at patterns of sunlight, work on rolling over, and chew on a simple toy. She’s already busy learning exactly as she needs to learn. Few of us are raising infants in some tranquil Eden by any means.  But we can avoid overstimulating them, distracting them, and breaking their concentration as they play.

Within a child’s first few years many of us accumulate a staggering overload of items, each one meant to amuse and educate our kids. Camila, who repeatedly tried to reorganize her kids’ toys, reported they had bins and shelves packed with toys but everything was always a mess. “Just to see how bad it was, I thought I’d count all their stuffed animals, large and small,” she said. “I gave up when I got to 100.”

Like so many other purchasing choices we make, quality matters more than quantity. For example, when toys are tied to specific movies or shows, kids are likely to reenact storylines but less likely to play creatively. They also play more passively with toys that make sounds, move, or otherwise perform. ” In contrast, open-ended playthings like blocks, dolls, a wagon, a ball, art supplies, and yes, a few generic stuffed animals, are far more likely to inspire imagination. Engaging fun happens when kids create their own projects, come up with their own games, and drift into their own make-believe worlds. (Check out Little World’s post on ways to encourage loose parts play.)

Parents (well, those who can afford it) know it’s easy to placate bored kids with a treat, toy, or digital playtime. But we don’t need to overdo it. We don’t want to teach them to depend on external stimulation instead of building strength essential for resilience and happiness at any stage in life — the ability to amuse themselves.  Sure, every parent is going to distract and placate at times, but we need to keep from letting this become the go-to solution. We can build on a child’s capacity for self-directed play just by getting out of their way. This starts early on, in babyhood, as Janet Lansbury explains in “7 Myths That Discourage Independent Play”  and there are all sorts of ways to encourage self-directed play as kids get older.

Top-Down Activities

The more we structure children’s time, the more we interfere with their own drive to learn, explore, imagine, and simply be. The inner motivation we want for our kids can be supplanted by external rewards like constant validation, a fix for every frustration, and bribes for good behavior. It’s possible to focus so intently on what we believe will make our children happy and successful that we forget children look to us as guides. They feel most secure when adults are grounded, consistent, and caring authority figures who trust that kids they’re growing up just fine as they are.

Many adults seem determined to keep kids busy. Unintentionally, this teaches children that fallow time is undesirable. Yet daydreaming, contemplation, even the uncomfortable condition we call “boredom” are necessary to incorporate higher level learning and to generate new ideas.

As psychologists Dorothy Singer and Jerome Singer write in The House of Make-Believe, children who have plenty of time for free play are more imaginative and creative, have more advanced social skills, and are actually happier as they play. The Singers contrast two children who are given free-form playthings like dolls or building blocks. The child who has had plenty of experience with daydreaming and make-believe is comfortable coming up with pretend scenarios, and can easily find inventive ways to play with these toys. The child who has not had much experience with make-believe or daydreaming may find little engaging about the toys after a short time —- in other words, he gets bored quickly.  The imaginative “muscles” built by daydreaming, make-believe, and downtime simply haven’t developed.

Default Screens

Here we get to the dreaded “actions speak louder than words” thing. Kids see how we handle boredom. What are our go-to solutions? When we’re waiting in line do we take the opportunity to observe what’s around us, think our own thoughts, talk to each other? When we have a free evening do we do something that actually aligns with our interests —- test out a new recipe, read a book, practice the guitar, shoot hoops, relax on the porch doing nothing but relaxing? Or do we default to scrolling through our feeds, checking email, watching videos? I’m just as engaged with screens as the next person (and hey, there are a lot of important reasons to check our phones) so I’m not pointing fingers, but it helps to recognize that this is the first generation to grow up around such immersive technology and our example matters.

According to their parents, many days Caleb played online games for hours and Ella liked to watch the same movies over and over. There’s a great deal of variability in how screen time affects different children and there are enormous positives to be found in the offerings of today’s technology, but apparently not in a child’s earliest years.

Preliminary research indicates that exposure to more than two hours a day of screen time (even background screens) during infancy and toddlerhood is associated with a shorter attention span  and more difficulty with self-regulation (the ability control one’s own behavior) as they get older. Pediatrician Dimitri Christakis believes that rapidly changing images on the screen precondition a young child’s mind to expect high levels of stimulation, making lower levels of stimulation such as those found in everyday life somewhat boring. (Dr. Christakis’ viewpoint is, at this point, remains largely conjecture.)

Older kids often use screens in more challenging and stimulating ways. Today’s electronics are far from the passive entertainment Ella and Caleb’s parents and grandparents grew up with. It is, however, a problem when sitting for hours on end replaces other more active, hands-on ways of being. Sometimes kids simply get out of the habit of doing other things. One study even found that older kids are bored during screen time but feel they don’t have other play options. Perhaps that’s because kids don’t have permission to do a variety of other things like make a mess, make noise, and get out of sight of adults —- sure signs that fun is happening.

Makers of toys, games, and movies expect boredom. They counteract this by ramping up conflict and violence to more effectively sustain attention. Makers of children’s programming, even children’s building sets, have resorted to increasingly violent themes to boost sales.  Marketers certainly know how to use brain science to keep our kids’ dopamine levels surging.

We definitely get those dopamine hits when we play a video game or watch a movie. Nothing wrong with that. Our brains get the same rush of pleasure when we create, challenge ourselves, get active, socialize, figure out a problem.  Remember that role model thing? Let’s remember to demonstrate to our kids that we enjoy our screens and get a kick out of non-screen living too. Maybe learn some new dance movies, fix something broken, make up a story, invent a new sandwich, ask Grandma to teach you something, wave to garbage collectors, or whatever playful idea strikes your fancy. Playfulness is contagious.

Two Kinds of Boredom

There’s a difference between a shut-down, numb mind and a fertile, constructively bored mind. Numbing boredom can set in when kids are stuck in a situation where they have very little control over their own activities. This is common in structured, physically restrictive settings — think school, religious services, long trips in the car, sitting through a sibling’s sports event. When numbing boredom happens too often or goes on too long, kids may learn passivity or learn to make trouble.

Constructive boredom is something else entirely. It’s a fertile state all its own. When kids sit on their nothing-to-do frustrations for a while, boredom can hatch into all sorts of possibilities. What kids invent when making their own fun invariably challenges them in myriad ways, often right to the edge of their next developmental milestones. What we don’t want to do is take over or supervise too closely, squashing boredom’s marvelous potential.

Boredom may feel uncomfortable, but it’s actually the tingle of imagination signaling of possibilities to explore. We can tell kids to say “yes” to boredom, letting it tug at them until they come up with an idea. When they do, we need to remember to say “yes” to as many of their ideas as we can, to accept the mess and uncertainty and noise that often accompanies kid-generated fun.

~~~~~

Camila and Mateo were frustrated by their children’s chronic boredom until a radical change was imposed on them. Mateo, who worked in building maintenance, lost his job when the company closed. His only income was a small cash flow from drawing comics and some side jobs as an illustrator. Camila taught several courses as an adjunct at a local college for low pay. Faced with a drastically reduced income, they talked to the kids and together prioritized holding on to their house and maintaining a close family.

This meant taking big steps to simplify. They stopped the kids’ lessons and sports. They dropped cable, leaving internet service with a data cap — which cut into Caleb’s gaming time and Ella’s movie time. They held a series of tag sales to raise money. The kids chose what toys to sell and kept the proceeds. (They turned their nearly empty closets into hideouts.)

Next they embarked on a project to bring in some income by converting their walk-out basement into a compact apartment to rent out. It was hard work, even harder to adjust to having another person living in their house at first, but the rent effectively paid most of their mortgage.

Mateo found another job three months later, yet they’re sticking with the changes made during the upheaval of unemployment. “No one wants to minimize because they’re forced to,” Mateo says, “but what we cut out helped.”

He sees all sorts of benefits. There’s no nagging about getting out the door for sports practice and games.  Honing down their possessions cooled the pressure on everyone to clean up clutter and almost magically made their home feel more welcoming.  Rehabbing the basement, Mateo believes, was the best thing of all. The kids felt good about helping out and still incorporate “fixing things” into their play. It’s like this was a reboot,” he says, “reminding us the four of us are in this together.”

Camila reports the kids are thriving. “They’re not perfect,” she says, “but there’s a lot less whining. I’m really impressed that they’re able to amuse themselves for hours on end.” That day while she graded papers, Caleb and Ella colored, pretended the stairs were a volcano, and made paper airplanes they threw off the porch. Then they conducted an ill-fated experiment to see if they could balance the recycling bin on their dad’s old skateboard. They could not, but they got an idea for another project as they cleaned up the spilled contents.  Painful as simplifying was, it helped bored kids find ways to make their own fun.

The big takeaway from Caleb and Ella’s story, to me, doesn’t center on fewer structured activities,  minimizing toys, or helping out around the house. It has to do with having time and freedom to play. Time? Hours each day. Freedom? Noise, mess, arguments, mistakes, space to play away from constant adult supervision.  As Robert Coles said, “We all need empty hours in our lives or we will have no time to create or dream.”

Resources

“The Play Deficit”

“6 Ways to Encourage Free Play, Create Stronger Communities, & Raise Safer Kids”

“How Kids Benefit From Real Responsibilities”

“Playful Cures for a Toy Overload” 

“Innovation Doesn’t Come in a Kit”

“The Boy With No Toys” 

bored kids,

 

 

Play Hints At Who We Are

 

play reveals who we are

“In our play we reveal what kind of people we are.” ~Ovid

What is play? It has nothing to do with structure imposed by adults. Psychiatrist Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, describes play as most basically “purposeless, repetitive, pleasurable, spontaneous actions.” Sometimes this is driven by curiosity and the urge to discover. Sometimes it is imaginative play. Sometimes it’s  rough and tumble play, the kind that necessarily puts the player at risk and involves anti-gravity moves such as jumping. This description is true whether we’re talking about puppies, otters, crows, or people.

The “higher” a species ranks in intelligence, the more they play.

A research team led by ethologists Robert and Johanna Fagan spent 15 years, many of them sitting in trees, studying how bears play in the wild. Of the bears they observed, the individuals that played more often as cubs and through adulthood lived longer and healthier lives. They also left behind more offspring.

A study of ground squirrels found those that played were more coordinated (a big deal for squirrels) and grew up to be more successful parents.

And we know a lot about the importance of play for rats. They even laugh (a rat version of laughter) when tickled.  Compelling research shows the more young rats actively played, the more rapidly their brains grew and their learning abilities increased. (The same correlations seem to be true for children’s play as well.)

Young creatures, including humans, play  has to do with movement and excitement. It’s a highly sensory way to experience socially important peaks and lows, winning and losing, threat and relief from threat. It helps participants learn to understand the intentions of others. It also lets them learn to handle stressors and practice different reactions,  gradually teaching them through experience to respond appropriately when they face much more demanding emotional and physical challenges later in life.

This is helpful to remember when kids are wrestling, climbing, chasing, running, giggling, tumbling, and making a mess. It’s even more helpful to remember when they’re arguing, grabbing, yelling, complaining, shrieking, and otherwise demonstrating that melodrama is inseparable from play. All of that physical and emotional energy is important practice for becoming reasonable, responsible adults.

why kids play fight

Play can also tell us a great deal about what’s forefront in children’s lives.

When my oldest child started kindergarten his play reflected the more authoritarian structure he was adjusting to and interactions with the different people he encountered each morning. He balanced that by seeking out more time in the garage hammering nails into scrap wood, more time riding his bike, and more time playing Legos than before he’d started school —- all reassuringly favorite activities to discharge the day’s emotions. And he and his best friend Sara started playing “school bus.” They sat in chairs or on the ground behind each other while acting out what they observed on their daily bus rides. They took turns quite politely repeating some pretty awful slurs they heard from kids on the bus, and then repeating back the driver’s rather belligerent responses. Their play not only helped them work through their experiences, it helped us alert the school to what was happening.

Play can also inform us about temperament, innate abilities, and about where different individuals find joy.   Here are two examples, taken from Free Range Learning of children expressing who they are through play.

A little girl creates chaos with her toys. She won’t put blocks away with other blocks nor put socks in her dresser drawer. As a preschooler she creates groupings that go together with logic only she understands. One such collection is made up of red blocks, a striped sock, spoons, and marbles. She sings to herself while she rearranges these items over and over. The girl is punished when she refuses to put her puzzles away in the correct box or her tea set dishes back together. She continues making and playing with these strangely ordered sets but hides them to avoid getting in trouble. This phase passes when she is about nine years old. Now an adult, she is conducting post-doctoral studies relating to string theory. She explains her work as a physicist has to do with finding common equations among disparate natural forces.

A young boy’s high energy frustrates his parents. As a preschooler he climbs on furniture and curtain rods, even repeatedly tries to scale the kitchen cabinets. When he becomes a preteen he breaks his collarbone skateboarding. He is caught shoplifting at 13. His parents are frightened when he says he “only feels alive on the edge.” Around the age of 15 he becomes fascinated with rock-climbing. His fellow climbers, mostly in their 20’s, also love the adrenaline rush that comes from adventure sports but help him gain perspective about his responsibility to himself and other climbers. His ability to focus on the cliff face boosts his confidence on the ground. At 19 he is already certified as a mountain search and rescue volunteer. He is thinking of going to school to become an emergency medical technician.

Stuart Brown says that looking back at our own unique “play history” can tell us a great deal about ourselves. He asks us to let ourselves drift back to our earliest and most resonant play memories. He suggests asking older family members about what we played when we were very young.  He goes on to say,

Explore backwards as far as you can go to the most clear, joyful, playful image that you have whether it’s with a toy, on a birthday, or on a vacation. And begin to build to build from the emotion of that into how that connects with your life now. ..

How to rediscover play if you’ve let it slide? Move your body. Dig up your memories of what brought you pleasure as a child. Take cues from “the experts” — the children in your life today. Do what makes you happy, and what transports you beyond a sense of the clock, your schedule, that deadline — beyond time.

As my dear friend and mentor Bernie DeKoven reminds us,

Playfulness is a practice that shapes our souls. It connects us. It is an act of belief in ourselves, a vehicle whose wheels are powered by our faith in life, bringing us to places of wonder, moments of joy. It is almost the last thing to leave us before we leave all together forever.

We Could All Use a Good Laugh

 

laughter is the cure, global understanding

“Sound of Laughter” by Hersley

We’re primed to practice the generative power of laughter from our earliest years. As babies interact with their mothers, their laughter quadruples from three months of age to their first birthday. Interestingly, mothers laugh nearly twice as often in these interactions. By a baby’s second year, they laugh nearly as long and often as their mothers do, meaning the more mom laughs the more her child laughs!

Some scientists believe laughter was a precursor to language itself.  As neuroscientist  Jaak Panksepp explains,

“Neural circuits for laughter exist in very ancient regions of the brain, and ancestral forms of play and laughter existed in other animals eons before we humans came along with our ‘ha-ha-has’ and verbal repartee.”

Throughout life, from childhood on, most of our laughter comes from social interactions.   Studies tell us we laugh 30 times more often in the presence of others than we do when we’re alone. Since laughter does so many good things for us, body and soul, it motivates us to spend time with the very people who make us happy. What a lovely feedback loop — instigating, reacting to, and inspiring more laughter  —- bonding us to each other through delight.

Smiles are contagious.

Kindness is contagious too.

So is laughter.

Laughter can even become an epidemic.  In 1962, three girls started giggling in  Kashasha, a small town in what’s now Tanzania. It spread to 95 students in their school, lasting for hours. Within two weeks, similar laugh attacks infected kids in the nearby towns of Nshamba and Bukoba. It continued to spread, closing 14 schools before quarantines were enacted. It took 18 months before the epidemic slowed.

(In rare cases, you can laugh yourself to death.)

I am serious about all sorts of issues and will discuss them with you to death (a worse death, I’m sure, than death by laughter).  But I’m also an unrepentant guffaw-er. I’m pretty sure this is a genetic condition, my very polite mother was also prone to fits of hilarity.  Like her, I am capable of laughing normally, but sometimes I end up shrieking and cackling.  Controlling such laughter is just about impossible. Once, as a teenager, I was swimming across a small lake with my friend Kathy. As we swam, we started laughing about how funny the other person looked swimming. Weakened by glee, we got to the point where we could only dog paddle in place. Seeing the other person dog paddling, wide-mouthed with laughter, made us laugh all the more. Soon we were barely able to keep our heads above water. After gulping too many mouthfuls of water, we finally staunched our laughter until we somehow managed to get ourselves onto dry land. There we lay exhausted, aware we’d nearly drowned, laughing again.

I mostly laugh about my own awkwardness (plenty of material there) like falling , eating a mouthful of dirt, and accidentally snorting in a stranger’s face.  Snorting, by the way, got me laughing crazily the other day. For some reason Olivia was snorting with joy as Sam tossed her on the couch and for some reason that snorting set me off. I was trying to video this, but you can barely hear her snorts over my ridiculous shrieks.

Laughter’s contagious nature is more evidence that we humans are connected across all so-called boundaries. I’m writing about laughter today because my family has had a tough time lately and so has our country and so has our world. So I’ll leave you with these timely words by dear soul and wise sage, Bernie DeKoven. who writes in a post titled “Play, Laughter, Health, and Happiness,”

Playing and laughing together, especially when we play and laugh in public, for no reason, is a profound, and, oddly enough, political act.

Political, because when we play or dance or just laugh in public, people think there’s something wrong with us. It’s rude, they think. Childish. A disturbance of the peace.

Normally, they’d be right. Except now. Now, the peace has been deeply disturbed – everywhere, globally. And what those grown-ups are doing, playing, dancing, laughing in public is not an act of childish discourtesy, but a political act – a declaration of freedom, a demonstration that we are not terrorized, that terror has not won.

A Frisbee, in the hands of people in business dress in a public park, is a weapon against fear. A basketball dribbled along a downtown sidewalk, is a guided missile aimed at the heart of war. Playing with a yo-yo, a top, a kite, a loop of yarn in a game of cats’ cradle, all and each a victory against intimidation. Playing openly, in places of business, in places where we gather to eat or travel or wait, is a gift of hope, an invitation to sanity in a time when we are on the brink of global madness.

Yes, I admit, I am a professional advocate of public frolic. I am a teacher in the art of fun. I hawk my playful wares every time I get a chance, with every audience I can gather, war or peace.

But this is a unique moment in our evolution. America is no longer bounded by its boundaries. We are tied into a network of terror that crosses national divisions…

And I believe that we have far more powerful weapons than any military solution can offer us. And I believe that those weapons can be found in any neighborhood playground or toy store.

Like for play, laughter is also a political act, a declaration that fear and terrorism have not won. Incontrovertible evidence that there is hope.

May laughter’s gifts lift us all, together.

45 Cures for Cabin Fever

 

fun inside activities, cabin fever cures

Stuck inside? Make cabin fever fun by trying something new.

Set a new world record and register it on Recordsetter.com.  There’s even a junior division, with records like Most Consecutive Pieces of Dog Food Caught By a Dog,  Youngest Person to Recite the Periodic Table, and Fastest Time to Paint a Rainbow.

Stage an indoor snowball battle. Grab some paper from the recycling pile, crumple into balls, and throw.

Yarnbomb a piece of furniture. Too complicated? Just wrap it in brightly colored yarn or fabric strips.

Turn your daily lives into a guessing game. Take turns issuing a challenge and writing down everyone’s guesses, then prove each other right or wrong. The proof part is particularly fun as everyone hurries to count, measure, and calculate. Kids might choose to guess how many shoes are in the house. How many books. How many countries are represented in a drawerful of shirts (as long as they have origin tags). Guess the measurement of each other’s heads. How many inches it is from the front door to the TV, the computer, the bathroom. Guess how many days or hours each person has been alive. How long each person can stand on one foot. Well, you get the idea. The kids will not think this is fun if you have them guess how quickly they can put away their Lego. For more ways to make fun into math and math into fun, check out these 100 Math Activities and Resources.

Communicate via banana. Write a message or draw a picture on the skin of a banana using a toothpick or pencil. It’ll darken within an hour.

Paint without using your hands. Try taping the brush to a remote control toy, dangling it by a string, or rolling it across the paper. Or you might paint as this talented young artist does, by holding a paint brush in your mouth.

Make geodes out of eggshells and Epsom salts.

Start inventing. Save cardboard boxes and cardboard tubes of all sizes, along with string, rubber bands, lids, paper clips, yogurt cups, and so on. Distribute equal amounts of this “junk” so kids can build whatever they choose —- like a junk marble run or egg drop (from a window). Try a specific challenge, similar to the old TV series Junkyard Wars.  Kids can invent sorters that send pennies down one chute and dimes down another, bridges that hold weight, catapults that toss ping-pong balls, or simply let inspiration hit.

Make a batch of Make Ahead Pizza with this recipe from Attainable Sustainable.

Help out the birds (and squirrels, they’re hungry too). Fill orange halves with birdseed, make a birdseed wreath, or coat pinecones with peanut butter and roll in birdseed. Keep the binoculars and bird guide close for bird watching. To attract even more birds during the winter, consider putting a heated bird bath on your deck or porch railing.

Play with tape. Rolls of painter’s tape or masking tape can spur new play ideas. Toy vehicles and action figures can travel along roadways made of tape stretched along on the floor. Overpasses, buildings, and other roadside features can be made from shoeboxes and other cardboard discards. Tape a giant checkerboard on the carpet, then use two sets of matching items for playing pieces. Tape a hard-surfaced floor to mark out hopscotch or skellzies. Stretch tape, sticky side out, across a doorway and take turns throwing crumpled paper at it to see if it sticks.

Make paper dolls (or paper dinosaurs, robots, elves, whatever) from stiff paper, connecting the limbs with brads. Then cut out accessories. Use large sheets of paper to draw backgrounds. These paper characters can act out stories with endless variations.

Camp in. Put up a tent in the living room, construct forts using couch cushions, or toss a sheet over a table. Such secret hideaways are a portal to make-believe. (A flashlight per kid really amps up the fun.)

Make the easiest homemade cheese. You need only one ingredient other than milk.

Build geometric sculptures. This simply requires toothpicks and miniature marshmallows. It’s a great way to make free-form sculptures while discovering some principles of geometry. As the marshmallows dry they’ll adhere ever more tightly to the toothpicks. After a day or two of drying the kids can decorate their sculptures with markers or paint if they’d like.

Make marshmallow shooters and target shoot with those leftover marshmallows.

Set up an obstacle course. Release some pent-up energy with a temporary indoor obstacle course. It might consist of a few chairs in a row to wriggle under, six plastic cups to run circles around, a squared off area to perform ten jumping jacks, then three somersaults down the hall before turning around to do it all in reverse. Older kids can set up a simple obstacle course for smaller kids. The adult in charge might want to put safety rules in place before the frenzy begins.

Learn to play a free instrument you already have. Really, it’s in your kitchen.

Go through old photos to see how places where your family came from have changed. You can pin them on Historypin.com, send them to the area’s historical society, or post them on social media tagged to the town.

Paint the tub. Just mix up some bathtub paints, then put kids in a (dry) tub to paint away. When they’re done they can clean it up and themselves with water.

Puzzle it out. Set out a big, somewhat complicated puzzle and leave it out in an area where everyone can work on over a period of days until it’s done.

Make Flarp. It’s said to have the same properties as Silly Putty, except it also farts. (You know this will be a hit.)

Get moving. Balance a book on each head and see how far kids can walk before it falls off, use pillowcases for gunny sack races, tape zigzag and dash lines on the floor to follow for a run and jump race, bat balloons back and forth, turn on the music and dance, call out animal names (snake! kangaroo! sloth!) and move as those animals move, tape bubble wrap to the floor and jump.

Mix up some elephant toothpaste

Make a movie. Steven Spielberg started making movies as a kid so be sure to save your child’s film for posterity. Fame may hit. (Spielberg’s mother let him dump cans of cherry pie filling in the cupboards that slowly oozed out so he could film a horror movie. She probably wanted a free afternoon to watch her soaps, but there’s something to be said for creative license….)

Perform good deeds. Bake some goodies to share with a neighbor, local firefighters, or your librarians. For more family volunteering ideas, check 40 Ways to Volunteer, Toddler to Teen.

Draw on the windows. Use washable window markers to play tic-tac-toe or hangman. Or draw some sunshine.

Make fairies and superheroes out of wooden clothespins.

Snowy out there? Check out 15 Smarty Pants Ways to Enjoy Snow.

Goo around with homemade (and safe for toddler) slime.

Make your own family board game. Keep it simple for small ones, add twists and more complex questions for older kids. Together you can incorporate inside jokes, everyone’s names, favorite places around town, whatever your family decides.

Go postal. Consult 38 Unexpected Ways to Revel in Snail Mail to find out how you can find a pen pal, register for a mail exchange, mail strange objects without packing them in a box, and more.

Make Cosmic Suncatchers using glue, food coloring, and plastic lids.

Get your kids to predict the future. Better yet, write to your future selves. The kids may want to write to themselves as they’ll be in ten years or at your age. Don’t make this a child-only activity. Sit down and write to your future self too. You’ll want to include a description of an average day, list your favorite foods and activities, and imagine what you’ll be doing at that future date. Now seal those envelopes, write “Do Not Open Until ______” on the outside, and keep them somewhere you’ll remember.

Start throwing things. Juggling boosts brain development and reinforces a growth mindset. It’s also fun once you get the hang of it. Here’s more about juggling including how-tos.

Build a craft stick catapult.

Create sock puppets. Add features like ping-pong ball eyesyarn hair, and a cardboard mouth. For more ideas grab a copy ofHow to Make Puppets With Children or 10-Minute Puppets. Once your puppets are ready, create a theater out of a large cardboard box, practice a few scenes, then put on a performance.

Play vocabulary-boosting dictionary games. Trust me, these are actually a lot of fun.

Record a broadcast. For inspiration, you might listen to a recording of an old radio show, like the original 1938 broadcast of War of the Worldsthen make your own audio story complete with narration and sound effects. Toss in some campy advertisements for extra fun.

Learn magic tricks via KidZone magic tricks and About.com’s easy card tricks for kids. You might also want to consult Knack Magic Tricks: A Step-by-Step Guide to Illusions, Sleight of Hand, and Amazing Feats and Kids’ Magic Secrets: Simple Magic Tricks & Why They Work.

Stage a treasure hunt. First, hide a prize. The prize doesn’t have to be a toy (it could be a snack or pack of crayons). Next, hide clues. For non-readers the clues can be rebus pictures, digital photos, or magazine cut-outs. For readers try riddles, short rhymes, or question-based clues. Each one should lead the child to a spot where the next clue is hidden. If you have more than one child let everyone search for clues and figure them out together. Or stage treasure hunts for each child in turn using the collaborative efforts of those who are waiting. Once kids are familiar with treasure hunts they can easily set them up on their own. To get you to play they may turn off your cell, hide it, and chortle gleefully while you track it down.

Create art out of salt and glue.

Slide on the steps. Flatten cardboard from a large box and place over stairs so kids can race cars up and down, roll balls, or pretend to be mountain-climbers. Couch pillows at the bottom help cushion sliding mountain climbers.

Teach traditional clapping games to small children

Have a picnic. Yes, a picnic. Fling a tablecloth or beach towel on the floor. Eating on the floor may be novel enough but make sure the meal consists of picnic-y finger foods for real authenticity. You might want to fire up the grill to cook hot dogs and roast marshmallows. If you’re eating on a tiled floor in the kitchen consider amping up the fun by ending the picnic with a brief rainstorm you impose with a squirt bottle. Then again, maybe not. The kids will get you back some day.

 

17 Playful Cures for a Toy Overload

toy overload, play without toys,

But there’s nothing to do! (CC by 2.0 Dennis Brekke)

Friends of ours were burdened with a serious toy overload. Their four children had generous weekly allowances and lots of gift-giving relatives. As a result, there were more toys than I’ve ever seen in one home. When the family room was overrun,  their father would use a snow shovel to scoop the floor clean. He dumped the shovelfuls in big plastic bins and hauled them to the basement. After doing this a few times he realized the kids rarely bothered to get out those particular playthings. They didn’t really miss them at all.

I deeply admire the mother I interviewed for The Boy With No Toys although we’ve personally never taken an anti-toy stance in our family. Over the years we’ve happily accumulated dolls, trucks, building sets, art supplies, stuffed animals, as well as lots and lots of books. We emphasize quality, not quantity. It’s one way of sparing our planet the burden of sweatshop-made, eco-unfriendly products.  And more importantly, we think it’s part of raising kids who aren’t oriented toward materialism for their own well-being, both now and in the future.

These days, typical options for childhood amusement include overly structured activities, lots of screen time, and commercial playthings that do the entertaining for them. Unfortunately, kids can become accustomed to someone or something else providing the fun for them. As a result they may not be attuned to the slower pace of conversation, the expansive pleasure of make-believe, or the subtle wonders found in nature. They may actually have trouble generating their own fun.

Even if you limit screen time and emphasize free play, young children can still be overwhelmed by too many playthings. A recent study  done in Britain found the average 10-year-old owns 238 toys, but mostly plays with 12 favorite items!

Simply reducing a toy overload can help children play more creatively, cooperate more easily, and become more resourceful. Here are some toy overload solutions.

 

Rotate toys

Make it a family policy to have fewer playthings available any one time. This way your child can deal with a smaller selection and play areas are less cluttered. Take a sensitive approach. Pick up a few things that have been long ignored and put them away for that proverbial rainy day. When you do get out a toy or stuffed animal that has been “resting” you’ll want to put away another object. If children notice, it’s common for them to feel sudden affection for the toy you’re putting into hibernation. When you face objections, don’t make the policy painful. Work together to find another toy that your child can agree to put away. You’ll find the same old toys take on a new luster when a young child hasn’t seen them for a while.

 

Reserve toys for specific situations.

It’s helpful to deem some toys for use only under certain conditions. These might be perfect opportunities to use toys that require a parent close by, or a way to minimize use of passive entertainment toys they’ve been given. Keep such items for situations when your child is forced to be passive anyway such as the car seat, waiting in line, at a restaurant, or while you’re on an important call. Even very young children come to recognize that such toys are kept in a diaper bag, a parent’s car, or on a high shelf for special occasions. Explanations before and after use, “We only use this in the car” or “This is a Mama’s-on-a-work-call toy” help keep the boundaries drawn and make it easy to put the toy away for the next time.

 

Join or set up a toy lending library 

Collections of donated toys can be found through some museums, community centers, and public libraries. Toy lending programs give families access to a wider range of ordinary playthings and more expensive toys than they might ordinarily afford, as well as toys for special needs children. Search online to find a toy library near you or for helpful advice on starting a collaborative toy lending service. Find a toy library near you using USA Toy Library Association listings and find out more via the International Toy Library Association.

 

Assemble play kits using non-toy items

You can throw together kits that stimulate imaginative play while repurposing old objects. (Of course, these suggestions are not appropriate for children who put objects in their mouths or are too young to use the items safely.) To keep up the appeal factor, put the kits away between use. They are great to get out when kids have friends over.

Office: Use a briefcase or file box. Tuck in office-type items such as memo pad, non-working cell phone, calendar, writing implements, round-tip scissors, post-it notes, and calculator. A big thrill is a tape dispenser—this alone can keep small kids happily occupied. A major coup is finding a manual typewriter at a thrift store. You’ll need to help kids understand how to type one letter at a time to keep the keys from becoming tangled.

Doctor: Fill a small suitcase with a stethoscope, tongue depressors, tiny flashlight, notebook for doctor’s notes, band-aids, and plenty of gauze to bind up injuries. Children particularly enjoy using the items to diagnose and treat dolls or stuffed animals.

Costume: A costume box or trunk is a childhood classic. Add cast-off and thrift store items likely to enhance make-believe. Don’t worry about actual costumes, just toss in a range of imagination-sparking things. Include work wear, dress-up, jewelry, wallets, purses, shoes, vests, tool belt, badges, lengths of fabric that can be used as capes or veils, and plenty of hats.

Building: Fill a large container with heavy cardboard tubes as well as sturdy cardboard boxes. Add a roll or two of masking tape, string, clean yogurt cups, egg cartons, popsicle sticks, corks, plus hardware cast-offs such as nuts and bolts. Encourage children to build whatever they choose from the cardboard supply. They might need help punching holes in the cardboard to insert bolts or string. When you can, bring home the largest cardboard box you can wheedle out of an appliance store. Children will find all sorts of ways to use it.

Market:  Save empty clean food packages, reglue boxes shut so they look new, and keep them in a bin along with any toy fruits and vegetables you may already have. Children can set up a play shop with these items, adding their own toys or books for additional merchandise. Lend them your fabric shopping bags to load pretend purchases. They may want to swipe a pretend debit card, use homemade money, or barter to cover their transactions. (They can use a similar concept to play Library with their books, Car Repair Shop with their riding toys, and so on.)

 

Encourage Deconstruction

Grandparents on both sides of our family kept a lookout for broken items our kids could take apart. This is marvelously fun as well as educational. It also requires very close supervision! Kids will need flat head and Phillips screwdrivers, needle-nosed pliers, safety glasses, wire cutters or heavy-duty scissors, and possibly some child-sized work gloves. Before letting them start, cut off and discard any electric plugs as well as cords on the item. Also check for glass parts or batteries that can cause injury, and make sure the item doesn’t have tubes (as old radios and televisions once did) Be forewarned, kids may encounter sharp bits of metal, coiled springs, and other surprises.

We put small deconstruction items in a shallow box (to catch the pieces) . Normally they’d work at the kitchen table to take apart things like a watch, Dymo labelmaker, motherboard, hand-held mixer, clock, printer, VHS or DVD player,  can opener, camera, radio, household fan, remote control car, and once a Furby (which creepily resumed its ability to talk once it was little more than a Furby skeleton), Large items they’d take apart outside on the driveway, with a big open box where they could put pieces. They took apart a microwave, several different bikes, and a lawn tractor. (This led one of my sons to drag a neighbor’s lawn tractor out of the trash, whereupon he fixed it and used it to make money mowing lawns!)

 

Permit hideouts

Most children like making their own realms under blankets, in closets, and behind furniture. Outdoors they make dens and forts out of a few branches or leftover planks. Provide sheets or blankets to drape over the furniture for an indoor hiding place, with couch cushions for support. On occasion, try to get a large packing box from stores selling refrigerators and washing machines. Your child can direct you to cut a few openings to transform the box into a boat, space ship, or castle. Once inside a hideout, children are in another entirely necessary world.

 

Let them play with water

Little kids adore water play. Pull up a stool to the sink and let them wash a few unbreakable dishes or toys with mild soap. They’ll stay busy pouring water from soup ladle to funnel to pitcher to cup. Add to the fun by putting a few ice cubes in the sink, giving them foil to shape into boats, or letting them add food coloring. Encourage them to gather a few water safe objects (perhaps a block, a spoon, a popsicle stick, a ball, a rubber band) and guess which ones will float before putting them in the water.  Or you might let them play in the tub for an hour or more while you sit nearby reading a book or getting some work done on the laptop.

Outdoors there are many more water options. On a hot day, water wiped on the house or driveway with a brush temporarily darkens the surface, giving toddlers the satisfying impression they are “painting.” It dries quickly so they can paint again. You can also give them a bucket and sponge to let them wash a tricycle, a watering can to give the plants a drink, or a sprinkler to run through. Don’t forget the pleasures of water added to dirt. Mud pies are a childhood classic.

 

Help kids set up obstacle courses

A rainy day indoor course might consist of a few chairs to wriggle under, a rope to hop over, four pillows to leap on in a row, three somersaults through the hall, and a quick climb up the bunk bed ladder.  Outdoors they can set up a bike, trike, or scooter obstacle course. Mark the course with sidewalk chalk or masking tape. The course may lead them around cones, through a sprinkler, under crepe paper streamers hanging from a tree branch, and on to a finish line. More fun? Setting up obstacle courses on their own.

 

Bring back legacy games

All that’s needed for most sidewalk games are chalk, while backyard games only require a ball and a sense of fun. For instructions you may have forgotten or never learned, check out Preschooler’s Busy Book, Great Big Book of Children’s Games, or Team Challenges.  Or dig into the game database offered by Bernie DeKoven at DeepFun. And remember to add those classic hand-clapping games, typically played while chanting a rhyme. A few rounds of Miss Mary Mack or Say Say My Playmate aren’t just fun, studies show they’re also brain boosters.

 

Stage treasure hunts

 First hide a prize. Then place clues throughout the house or yard. For very young children, those clues can be pictures or rebus sentences. For older children, the clues can be written as poems or riddles. Each clue leads to the next set of clues before the treasure is discovered. The prize doesn’t need to be a toy or goodies, since the hunt itself is the real fun. Try “hide a packed lunch day” and let everyone search for the cache of lunches. Those who find sustenance first need to help others so the kids can eat together. Or hide the book you’re been reading aloud so kids can search for the treasure of the next chapter. Once they’re familiar with treasure hunts, children can create them for each other.

 

Let them help

Even the smallest children want to participate in the real work that makes a household function. They want to tear lettuce for a salad, clean crumbs with a small whisk broom, measure beans and pour them in the coffee grinder, sort socks, carry kindling for the fireplace, water the garden, basically anything they see their elders doing. They benefit in remarkable ways, from greater dexterity to the development of character traits that lead to long-term success. What’s more, they have fun doing it.

 

Emphasize non-toy gifts for holidays and birthdays

It’s disheartening to give a highly anticipated toy or the newest gadget only to see it ignored a week or even a day later. You can give things like real tools for working with wood, crafting with fiber, or exploring the outdoors. These tools will be used over and over again as kids build valuable skills. You can give passes to events, subscriptions, and much more. For a listing of over 100 non-toy gifts, check here.

 

Take advantage of temporary circumstances

A large tree with damage from a lightning strike had to be taken down in our back yard. What was left behind were perfect playthings. There were large slices of wood the kids used as blocks and wheels. There were piles of brush they cut up with small hack saws and used to make forts. There was the stump itself, the best home base ever for games of tag.

One time my husband hauled home a junk car he’d bought for next to nothing so he could cannibalize it for parts. The few days it sat in our driveway were a delight for our five-year-old. We put one of his dad’s old shirts on him, mixed up a whole bucket of thick red tempera paint, and handed him a large paintbrush. He dragged a step stool around and painted the whole car, windows included. When they could, neighborhood kids came over to add second and third coats.

The septic system had to be dug up and fixed at our next house. When the company was done they left a towering pile of dirt. It was there for months until we had the money to rent the equipment necessary to move it. The kids called it their “mountain.” It inspired lots of imaginative play, one day they might be explorers running over the top and the next day they might be sitting in the dirt playing with toy trucks. They were sorry to see it go.

You may never have these particular circumstances, but there’s a good chance you’ll have others. Mother-in-law coming for a visit? Get her to teach your kids something she enjoys doing, maybe knitting or playing chess or Tai Chi. Power disrupted due to a storm? Let the kids play hide and seek or flashlight tag in your suddenly spooky dark house.  Invited to a wedding? Find some instruction on YouTube and practice the dances that are likely to happen at the reception. Nothing like kids who’ve got the moves! Your kids won’t have much trouble finding the most playful options for any circumstances. All you have to do is say “yes.”

 

Portions of this article were first published in Natural Life Magazine

Game of Slurs

Game of Slurs

image: tawnynina

Interactions in my family are, for lack of a better word, droll. Have been practically since the kids could talk.

droll       drōl      adjective
  1. curious or unusual in a way that provokes dry amusement.

That extends to improbably silly games. There were the word-nerdy ones my kids played using the dictionary and the ones they played on unwitting participants. There were games played while doing chores (for example, sliding across floors they were washing together) and, as they got older, ever drier commentary on each other’s interests. One long-standing game, played for at least a decade, is one my kids made up on their own. It’s a clever way to get around adults’ pesky rules about being “nice.”  I (being impartial) think it’s quite clever.

Fair warning, the game is not for everyone. I suppose it could be titled something pleasant like Creative Name Calling but this unnamed game is really a Game of Slurs.  To play you need two people. Two siblings, two friends, or a parent and child. What these two do, pretty basically, is take turns calling each other amusing insults. (I said it wasn’t for everyone.) So it might go this way between two five-year-olds.

“You’re a donkey nose!”

“Oh yeah, you’re a stinker butt,”

“Well you have ants in your pants.”

“You have ants and wasps and beetles in your pants and your pants are falling down.”

As you might imagine, this can go on. Kids are thrilled to call each other humorous names without getting in trouble. “We’re playing a game Mom!” Somehow, at least as we’ve played, it never crosses over the line into truly hurtful name-calling. That’s the beauty of made-up games. If one participant is nasty, the other participant won’t want to keep playing. Game over, fun over.

Game of Slurs doesn’t consist simply of name-calling. It has a momentum that drives it to an inevitable resolution. That’s the most clever part. Because the winner is the person who ends the game by saying something over-the-top nice when it’s his turn. Super sloppy wonderful superlatives. For five-year-olds it’s something like,”You’re the best, most wonderful brother in the whole world.”

“Awwww!” the other one shouts, because HE didn’t give in to the desire to win first.

That’s the tension that gives the game it’s momentum. But participants are getting away with something that feels illicit and they don’t want to stop. They’re caught up laughing at what silly names the other person is calling them and what they’re going to say back. They know either of them can win at any time but that’s counterbalanced by a desire to keep playing, to call out one more insult and then one more after that. Such a game helps develop all sorts of valuable skills like tempering one’s words appropriately, improving verbal acuity, and delaying gratification. These things are learned more fully in play than in instruction.

In a way, Game of Slurs reinforced the usually decent levels of civility between my kids. Name-calling, when it happened outside the game, led right into the game. If you give it a try, play carefully the first few times. Find the humor and dance well away from insult. I bet you’ll find it fun too.

Oh, by the way, teens are even better at this game. Hilariously better. I swear playing it serves as a tonic for the inevitable annoyances of family life. Game of Slurs between parent and offspring may be the most deliciously fun of all.

Bits of Joy List

Bits of Joy list, five minutes to happiness,

I was spawned by list makers. My mother made grocery lists, task lists, correspondence lists, and gratitude lists. My father, an elementary school teacher, made lists of students who needed individualized attention. He made lists of household chores. He kept lists of conversational topics he wanted to bring up with his kids and, later, lists of things to do with his grandchildren . When he got older he used to write “Hello Earl” at the top of his lists. As he pointed out, lists were a way of talking to his future self so he might as well say “hi.”

I’m convinced we can use out-of-the-ordinary lists to enhance our lives. I have all sorts of suggestions to create Life Lists unique to us and I’m following through on a few goals on my Delights To Cultivate list.

Recently I heard about Bit of Joy lists. These are lists to post somewhere in view. Maybe on the fridge door. Maybe as a screen saver. That way whenever a bit of time opens up we’re prompted to devote it to something we find wonderful rather than whatever has become our default activities (ahem, like checking our phones).

How to consciously savor life’s random free moments? Hmmm. As I scribble down ideas I wonder why oh why don’t I let myself do these things more often? That’s exactly how a Bits of Joy list can be so useful. What would you put on your list?

When I Have Five Minutes

Go outside. Take some deep breaths, look at the sky, notice sounds. Unpleasant weather? Do it anyway.

Balance on one foot, then the other, in an impromptu tree pose.

Hug someone I adore.

Indulge in the reverie kids know as “pretending.”

Donate to a good cause.

Smile at someone for all of the following reasons.

Read just one poem (perhaps “I Confess” by Alison Luterman). This is a very good reason to keep poetry books nearby and to bookmark poetry sites.

Contemplate my blessings.

Make plans to do something with someone dear to me.

Hug a tree.

Sing. Made up lyrics a plus.

Dance, especially to the music stuck in my head.

Click over to Light Weaver for interactive mandalas plus music.

Meditate or (as I practice it, sit quietly and hope this has some meditative effect).

 

When I Have A Half Hour

Take a walk, which may be the best problem-solving method around.

Read a book on the porch.

Garden.

Clean out a drawer or clean out a computer file. Very small increments of de-cluttering are allegedly fun.

Play the piano (which I never do, but tell myself I will).

Write an actual written-on-paper letter to a friend. Or mail something weirder.

 

 

 

When I Have An Afternoon

Go outside with a notebook and good pen, sit somewhere lovely, and write.

Play a game new to me from Bernie DeKoven’s master list of games.

Do one of the hundreds of projects I’ve saved on Pinterest.

Wander through shops that entice me. I’m not a shopper. I run to the market, grab what we need, and get out. I haven’t been to a mall in over a decade. But there are places that entice me. I know of a dollhouse shop about 40 minutes from here where I’d love to linger. (I’ve nearly convinced my husband to cut a hole in the wall and install a dollhouse-sized door and window, into which I can arrange a miniature scene. This WILL happen.) I love art galleries, import shops, odd niche stores, and of course bookstores.

Sew.

Go to an art museum. My favorite see-it-in-an-afternoon museum is Oberlin’s Allen Memorial Art Museum.

Attend a noontime concert. Many of these are free and hosted in beautiful old churches.

Learn something. This is another list but there’s so much I want to learn. No time like the present.