[Editor’s Note: I don’t know if it’s just Wyn Lydecker’s wonderful writing, but I’m in love with Birch Road in Darien, CT now. I’ll have to keep my eye on homes for sale there… ; ) ]
When Friday afternoon rolls around, two front yards in my neighborhood come alive with activity. Just a few houses away, I can expect to see up to a dozen kids ranging from third graders to middle schoolers running around, kicking a soccer ball, throwing a football or flicking lacrosse sticks. Farther down the street, a gaggle of pre-schoolers and kindergartners are happily playing imaginary games, tossing balls and riding on toy vehicles under the watchful eyes of parents.
How is it that such old fashioned, unstructured fun is happening in this era where most kids are either ultra-programmed or sitting mesmerized in front of a screen? The secret, my friend told me, is that the parents have to set the tone. She and three other mothers in my neighborhood created a force by banding together. They made a pact to not buy video games. They also do not allow TV or computer games until after the homework is complete. And although each of their kids participates in religious activities, does community service and plays on sports teams, the parents have not over-scheduleded them.These moms have stayed in communication with each other, backed each other up and acted as hosts to each others’ kids. The result? My friend showed me a photo of the four boys. Their genuine, relaxed smiles and body language told the story. These kids have a real friendship and a sense of self that I believe is lacking in so many of our children, despite all the focus on self-esteem. They’re not just polite, they are truly kind to family members, friends and animals. They just seem so open and uncomplicated. It doesn’t even matter that these friends have become split up across private, prep and public schools. When they are all home, they’re back playing pickup games outside.
When I take my afternoon walk down the street, I’ve witnessed these older boys creating their own fun with boys (and a girl) of all ages. They set their own boundaries and call their own plays. I paused one afternoon to watch a four-foot-tall third grader try to tag a six-foot eighth grader as he passed the ball. The pass was incomplete. The kids put their scrimmage lines back together and tried again. No grown-ups were out there growling at the kids, exhorting them to win or telling them how to play better and harder. These boys were just having fun. Isn’t that what sports are supposed to be about?
Even though the kids played with freedom and abandon, I knew that the mom was in the house and ready to spring into action if someone got hurt or tempers flared out of control. Maybe that’s part of the magic. The boys know this is a safe place to play. Their busy parents can be confident that they’re dropping their sons off at a home with a caring adult. As my friend once said to me, “I’m all over them like a hot tamale. I’ve got to keep my eye on them. I feel responsible.” But you don’t see her hovering or yelling at them. She’s just there.
Yet, I can’t help but feel that it’s her attitude and her husband’s that make their house what I call the magic magnet house. They and the other parents in the neighborhood pact have tried to teach their kids to be responsible and respectful. They’ve explained the difference between right and wrong. Then, the parents step back and let the kids go out and apply what they’ve learned. I’ve seen the older kids literally watch out for the younger ones. I’ve hired these kids to help me dig up roots in my garden, collect my papers and walk my dog. My neighbor has hired them to lift heavy boxes. They work hard.
When I see the littler kids down the street, I feel that they, too, will grow up to have more of a sense of self-worth and responsibility than the children who are programmed non-stop. These neighborhood kids are getting the value of unstructured play — outside, in fresh air, no matter the weather. These little kids make up ever-changing game scenarios and charge around in seemingly random fashion. Sure, they fall down and get hurt. But isn’t that how they learn resilience? Moms and dads are there to make sure the kids don’t blunder into the street. Isn’t that how kids begin to learn limits?
In talking to friends who live in other parts of town, I’ve learned that my street is thankfully not unique. One young dad told me that he is sensing a backlash against over-programming kids. Despite the image of Darien being filled with overbearing, sports-crazed parents and kids pressured into non-stop practices and games, some parents are just saying, “No.” Instead, they’re encouraging old fashioned pick-up baseball games, hide-and-seek, and even catching frogs in ponds.
So while I see the swarms of kids playing in soccer teams at Cherry Lawn, I also see tons of smaller children playing randomly in the playground and neighborhood dads tossing balls with groups of boys and girls. These are not scheduled play dates. This is just fun. It’s the wonder of childhood.
In this season of wish lists and ads telling us what we “must have,” I’m hoping more parents will think twice, draw the line and give kids what they really need: the miracle of love and a little freedom to just be kids.
Wyn Lydecker is a freelance writer and owner of Upstart Business Planning. She uses her 30 years of experience in marketing and entrepreneurial business planning to consult with business owners and craft clear, dynamic strategic plans and marketing documents. Her business plans answer the questions investors ask most. Wyn has also been a contributor to the Darien Times for the past 15 years, writing on local hot topics in Darien, CT. She holds an MBA from the Wharton School and a BA in Economics from the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Learn more at her Web sites: www.wynlydecker.com and www.upstartbusinessplanning.com. This article was adapted from her original post on the Darien Times web site.