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On Play

IMG_4072
A fine specimen

We live in a town that is not really such, to the extent that when one considers the term, the usual town-ish accouterments come to mind: Shops and sidewalks, pavement and parking spaces. A certain atmosphere of bustle, even if only in a modest way. In our town, there is town hall that’s open four hours each week, the church I’ve mentioned many times over, and the chainsaw repair shop I wrote about here and here. Indeed, our town is so small it does not have its own zip code, and instead shares one with another small (but not quite so small) town a few miles down a winding gravel road.

I was told recently – by someone who knows such things, so I believe it – that our shared zip code holds the distinction of having the highest free and reduced school lunch rate in Vermont. This might not mean it’s actually the poorest zip code in Vermont, but it’s certainly an indicator that poverty is very real and very present. This is not quite so obvious in the half of the zip code comprised by the town we inhabit; while there’s certainly plenty of economic hardship in these hills, it tends to be tucked away in the folds and creases of the land, there if you want to see it, but easy enough to avoid if you don’t. And it’s obvious that many of those living here do have some resources, as evidenced by large and well-kept homes on sprawling plots of land.

I have noticed lately, during the many times I drive down the Main Street of the town down the road that shares our zip code, that I almost never fail to see children playing outside; some of you might remember this little vignette, which occurred along this particular Main Street. Running, riding bikes, hula hooping, sliding on the little slide at the little playground in the middle of the little town. And noticing this, I realize how rarely I see children playing outside beyond the borders of this community, even in wealthier zip codes, where one might presume a relatively high degree of awareness around the value of a child’s play.

I wonder why this is. Perhaps the children of the small town down the road possess fewer material distractions, lack the multi-hundred-channel TV packages, the high speed Internet and the associated devices. More soberingly, maybe they pass their days outside in order to avoid whatever awaits them inside. Or perhaps I’m wrong about the degree to which child’s play is valued in more prosperous communities – maybe there’s an even greater value placed on the awareness that to get ahead in this world, one does not spend one’s childhood playing. Could it be that simple play has become an economically disadvantaging factor in modern America? It saddens me to consider this, but yes, I think it could.

The truth is, one of the reasons I no longer write much about education – and specifically, my children’s education – is that my ideas on the subject have softened and broadened with time. I remain grateful to have chosen the path we chose; indeed, even more so as my children mature, and I witness their evolution in ways I believe are at least to some degree related to their atypical path. But I also meet many wonderful and engaging children who are embarked on a more conventional educational journey, and by all appearances happily so, and I think what do I know? In truth, I think this pretty frequently, and relating to many more subjects than education and childhood, and I have come to believe that for me, at least, one of the great benefits of aging is the accruing wisdom to recognize how little I really do know and understand, and how comfortable I can be with that.

But I still know this: I am grateful to have been privileged enough to offer my boys the opportunity of unstructured play, as much and as often as they’ve desired. I do not think I will ever regret that. And I know this, too: When I drive down the street in the town down the road, and I see children playing – sometimes, many, many children, more than one might imagine could even live in such a small town – I always slow down a little, just to watch.

Because it makes me really, really happy.

Music of the day: 

Jeff Tweedy putting music to Woody Guthrie’s lyrics: Remember the Mountain Bed

Bill Mallonnee and the Vigilantes of Love: Nothing Like a Train

Chad Stokes: Our Lives Our Time

And just because I can. Turn it up!

 

 

 

 

32 thoughts on “On Play”

  1. Thanks for all of this including the chanterelle, but especially slowing down to watch and this “and I think what do I know? In truth, I think this pretty frequently, and relating to many more subjects than education and childhood, and I have come to believe that for me, at least, one of the great benefits of aging is the accruing wisdom to recognize how little I really do know and understand, and how comfortable I can be with that.”

    Listening to Playing for Change this morning which actually could be titled PLAYFULLY Playing for Change. Thanks.

  2. Innocent, uninhibited play is one facet of childhood that should extend throughout life. (Slowing down to observe kids at play means you are still a child at heart!)

  3. This really struck a chord with me this morning, and brought back a memory from Sunday of children playing in a public park across from my son’s apartment. It’s one of those parks with what I will call a fountain, sprinklers if you will, that the kids can run through and splash around in. Unstructured, spontaneous play, does seem to be lacking in our culture.

  4. Ben, very interesting. Just as a point of information, what’s the town down the road? Do you still live in Cabot? I don’t see any town with the same zip as there.

  5. I loved this Ben. This is exactly how I wanted to start my day. And WHATEVER comes next for your boys, I agree that you’ve given them the opportunity to learn the most important things first….which is the only time they could’ve learned these things as deeply as they have…

    I’m going out on a bike before hitting the edit table. ‘Took a couple weeks off’,which i put in quotes because i didn’t really take the time off…it just happened…so instead of actually relaxing all i did was not work AND worry….and now I’m back to work and actually relieved. I think i’m happier when i’m working. the mother fucking deer have eaten most of my tomatoes but the hops are growing good. I can’t feel the summer as acutely as i did when i was a kid but i’m working on it.

    Hope all is well over on your hill.

    e

  6. Thanks for acknowledging the lack of education related writing, as I’ve missed it. I’ve enjoyed all of it: some of it for true practical advice and some more to just get me fired up (If I ran the frickin school). I truly would enjoy hearing more about how your views have softened, and any resources you’ve recently come across. Or, maybe it’s none of my business, that’s cool too. Have a good one

    1. I agree, Scott. My husband and I have had a lot of fun doing our own rendition of “If I Ran the Frickin’ School.” It’s a fun way to spend an evening rocking on the porch. My boys have even picked up their own version and act it out in their play. They will come up to me with a bag of random stuff slung over their shoulder and say they are going to school. They qualify this with “But in my school, everyone is outside all day” or “My school has chickens.” And I say, “That sounds like my kind of school, too.” The fact that we’re doing exactly that makes me feel pretty darn good.

    2. I think maybe I’ll post more about this someday soon. And don’t worry: I can still work myself into a good lather.

      >

  7. Seeing a couple of boys with fishing poles riding their bikes down the road always cheers me and reminds me of the time when our son was young. This summer we hosted an annual party on the only weekend it rained. Our grandson aged 4 had two other 4 year olds to play with. The garage was open as a rain shelter and we also had a large canopy tent. Some friends were camping on our property. I suggested to one mom that the kids could always come indoors to watch cartoons but she said they were fine outside. Her child spends all week in day care. One of the last things the kids did was play with the leftover scrap lumber. We have no idea what they were doing but they did.

  8. I always appreciate in your reflections that you are still a learner and that parenting is incredibly challenging with constant wondering if this is the best for my children. We live near a large city and rarely see kids outside playing. More often they are being transported here for this lesson or that lesson. The pressure and stress of that culture is hard. Fortunately my wife has a birth to preK background and keeps the importance and time for our kids to play, simply play in tact. Thanks for your thoughts Ben. Cheers

  9. Seven years ago I was house hunting on-line and came across one in a town I’d never heard of so I map quested it and went to see this little house. What impressed me the most was all the children out playing and the adults sitting on their porch and teens walking and talking. I walked around the block and down the main street of this town and these people talked to me too. So strange to me from a bigger place where no one talks or even says ‘Hi’ in passing. So I bought the house and had a very nice time there for 6 years. I had to move back closer to my family due to health issues and I do miss the closeness of that little town even to a stranger like me among them.

  10. 50 years ago, when I was in grade school, the boys in my class loved to come play in my yard because it was out in the country and had lots of hills and trees and a small brook to run and play in and around. Fast forward 40 years to 2004, when I was in New Hampshire for four months attending to my Mother’s and Grandmother’s estates, I never once saw any boys fishing in the brook or riding bicycles near my Mother’s home. The only boys that I saw near the brook were smoking meth and none to pleased to see me. I was actually a little frightened by their aggressiveness, glad to have the company of a S&W 651 in addition to a 7′ crappie rod and a tub of worms.

    There is little spontaneous play in the ‘burbs, as everything is organized and coached and structured and limited to the kids whose parents can afford the fees and have the time to carry their kids hither and yonder for practice and games. It is hard to find an empty field or court to play on, as most are reserved months in advance. For us, competitive swimming has been the worst, as there are so many parents of young kids who treat every practice and meet as if it was competition for a place on the Olympic Swim Team. A lot of pressure, but not a lot of fun. My Daughter swam for 4 years in high school, earned 3 letters, and had a love/hate relationship with the sport. She is now swimming no stress NCAA D-3 and having a ton of fun.

  11. Growing up poor with a single mother who didn’t really want to be a mother, had it’s advantages. I could basically do whatever I wanted all over our small town. We walked out the door in the morning sun and didn’t return until night. We had to leave a note where we were but that was just the starting point, and often times just a lie. I became pretty ‘street smart’ this way, even outsmarted a child predator once (complete with creepy ass station wagon). And yes, staying away all day meant avoiding what was waiting at home. I also had the same freedom at my father’s home in the country (he wasn’t much into being a parent either), where I spent hours in nature, roaming fields, woods, ponds, etc. I live in a small city now, on the North side of town (known as the armpit of the city). The poor kids play in the park behind our yard, and I can’t help but smile, because I know they are learning things the privileged children will never learn. That wildness has value…. it also makes school hell, and church even more hellish. Those places were containment, prison. That’s not our natural state. Shut ’em down and burn them to the ground! Hehe.

  12. Great post, Ben. When I see my son and his buddy toting their BB guns and walking sticks and whatever else paraphanalia (sp?) they have all over our 40 acres, discovering the joys of fawns, hawks, grouse, rocks, sticks, water, and more…seeing them sweating to beat the band and yet having the time of their young lives…I too am so appreciative. I think that because we as a society cannot quantify “play,” that it no longer has value–and what a shame. Your boys and mine playing now is what will help them to be the most well-rounded adults that they are able to be — IMHO.

  13. I read your blog religiously but almost never comment, as I feel like an interloper in this space. Our lives are very different, even though I feel deep affinity with most of what you write. Here’s the paragraph that really struck a chord this time:
    “The truth is, one of the reasons I no longer write much about education – and specifically, my children’s education – is that my ideas on the subject have softened and broadened with time. I remain grateful to have chosen the path we chose; indeed, even more so as my children mature, and I witness their evolution in ways I believe are at least to some degree related to their atypical path. But I also meet many wonderful and engaging children who are embarked on a more conventional educational journey, and by all appearances happily so, and I think what do I know? In truth, I think this pretty frequently, and relating to many more subjects than education and childhood, and I have come to believe that for me, at least, one of the great benefits of aging is the accruing wisdom to recognize how little I really do know and understand, and how comfortable I can be with that.”
    I teach at a small private school in Silicon Valley, which my kids attend. My husband works for one of the tech giants. Even though on the outside our lives seem so different from yours, we worry about all of the things that concern you, especially when it comes to education, play, choice, self-motivation, etc. There are many people around here who worry about these things, too (and many more who don’t); there are enough educational choices to make one’s head spin–from excellent public schools to unschooling to various “lab” schools spawned by the techno-libertarians. We live in a cul-de-sac of town-homes that currently features 18 children aged 1 to 16. Our kids, who do not have a TV at home and get almost no other screen time, are outside playing with neighbors most of the time when they are not in school or attending an “activity” (one sport per child + one instrument, if they want either).
    After thinking and thinking and thinking about what kind of education to offer my kids (and what kind of teaching to commit myself to), I’ve come pretty much to the same conclusion as you, above: many wonderful children come out of all kinds of educational backgrounds. The home matters a lot more than the school. Given unconditional love and encouragement to pursue their interests–in or outside of school, as part of their education or on the margins of it–many children will turn out just fine. It helps to relax as a parent and just make sure that they have time to play. Thank you for your wonderful writing. I read every word.

  14. I have some neighbors with kids and i literally never see them except when they get out of the car to go inside. It saddens me. I invite the kids’ friends over from girl scouts or a homeschooling group to play and they have the time of their lives running the streets. It is clearly not something they do at home…

  15. Ben,
    I had to reply to this topic. My grandson is 3 years old and has already been in itty bitty t-ball and now soccer- he has no desire for either one of these but his parents insist. He has far more fun playing ball in the yard with me, his Grammy. I love nothing more than ending my day on my patio, reading and listening to the neighborhood children playing-sometimes they are splashing around in the pool- playing all sorts of made-up pool games and sometimes they are playing ball or other yard games they make-up. Free play outside is a lost and dying art.

  16. Talk about a gut punch Ben, jeezus. Great article once again and I have always wanted to find the neighborhood where I would feel comfortable letting my son go for the day and come home when hungry or the street lights come on. Sadly I am not sure many of those places exist anymore, being overrun by technology, fear, and perhaps the seeming meanness of the world today. Not sure. But I hope your town will resist that influx as long as possible so at least I will have a place to visit, sit on a stoop sipping a beer, and tell my son to go outside and play, and be back when the street lights come on.

    Thanks again.

  17. Hey Ben and everyone else. I teach Play to my high school students. Dang, that’s pretty cool. Check out the short movie “The Land” if you haven’t already. It makes me happy every time I show it to my students and encourages us to always seek Play.

  18. I can assure you that even in the wealthiest of communities here in the west, play still reigns! I live in a planned suburban sprawl development with numerous million dollar homes [not mine] and I see gobs of kids running around and playing in the streets in summer. Kids on bikes, skateboards, scooters, etc. Plus, I see a lot of kids just walking places, to friends, to play basketball, to the library, the pool, the park, the open space, wherever. They don’t seem any different than when I grew up, they’re just up to different things.

  19. Thanks for sharing this, Ben. As a newish parent I struggle with this too. On our street we know of several families but very rarely are children outside playing. We used to have a neighbor behind our house with a girl of similar age to our daughter and they would play in the ditch and open space back there for hours. It was perfect. Then they moved away. Recently a new family moved across the street and we were so very happy to see they had young children similar ages as ours and that they were almost always playing out in the street. I like to think it’s a hard time to be a parent, but perhaps parents always felt that way. It’s rare nowadays for children to organically get unstructured nature play, at least in many urban and mainstream lifestyles. Our city is smallish, 100k+, and the adult population is very much outdoor-oriented, but still a lot of children spend hours with technology. The idea of unschooling has a lot of appeal, especially in terms of the quantity of unstructured nature play it affords, but it seems like it would not marry well with a urban lifestyle, or at least as well. In the meantime, I’ve been organizing a “family nature club” to get nature back on the calendar and make more time for my children to enjoy the kind of play that came naturally in previous generations. Always seems kind of silly when I plan an event to go out to nature and “do nothing”… so grateful for you sharing your adventures and lifestyle. Very inspiring and making me think. All the best.

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