Remember playing in your neighborhood after dinner, until you couldn’t see the ball anymore? Well, last night, I played a game with my son Marco (3-1/2) and three other boys outside in our neighborhood until the sun went down. This is something I did countless times as a kid, and I’ve been longing for play like this in our neighborhood in Palo Alto. I want to tell you about what we did, and about how we got to the point where we could do something like this with our neighbors.
After dinner last night, Marco and I were riding our bikes around the block, and three brothers we know implored us to cross the street and come over to their house. After riding around their block with them a few times, they asked us to play “Red Rover.”
I agreed, but I had no idea what this game was. The oldest boy, six years old, explained the rules to me, but I see now that he got them all wrong. You can see the commonly used rules here.
Here are the rules that we played with: everyone but one person would stand at one end of their yard, and that one other person would stand in the middle of the yard. With his back turned to the others, he would say, “Red Rover, Red Rover, I call [color].” He would then turn around, and anyone wearing at least a bit of that color would charge toward him and try to run past him to the other end of the yard. If the person in the middle touched someone, that person would then have to be the person in the middle.
Playing this last night connected me to my childhood in my neighborhood better than anything I’ve ever done with Marco. The older kids and I improvised rules. The youngest kids, including Marco, had only a vague sense of the rules, but they played the game in their own way and had a great time. At one point, one of the kids fell and skinned his knee, cried a bit, then continued playing. We played and played until it started to get dark outside and the moms came out to tell us the kids needed to go to bed.
When Marco woke up this morning, the first thing he told me was that he wanted to play Red Rover again. We absolutely will do that, until he or the other kids get tired of it and start playing something else. I’d better brush up on “Capture the Flag,” and the various flavors of “Tag” and “Hide and Seek!”
So, how did we get to this point where we happened to stumble upon this game of Red Rover? While this may have seemed completely spontaneous, actually setting up the conditions to make this happen took a lot of steps. What I’m trying to convey here is that you shouldn’t just shove your kids outside one day one expect them to get involved in a great neighborhood game. A lot of groundwork needs to be done before this is even possible. Here are the things we did in the months before this:
- Play Outside in Our Front Yard: Marco played with me or his nanny many, many times in our front yard before this. We played Hot Wheels, bouncy ball, golf, baseball, etc. It’s important to note that we did this in our front yard in full view of other people in the neighborhood, so we got to talk to people as they walked by, and sometimes they would join us for a time. Thus, Marco got comfortable playing among his neighbors, and they got to know us.
- Knock on Neighbors’ Doors to Find Play: Often, when we have some free time, we walk to the houses of neighbors who we know have young kids (0 – 11) and knock on their doors. Our neighborhood is as lame as most, so the probability that a family will be home on a weekday or weekend afternoon is far less than 50-50, but we do this anyway. A lot. In the few times kids had been home in the past, we were able to get some play going, but I must admit that my son Marco wasn’t so good at playing with the other kids. Instead, he engaged in parallel play. In addition, he never asked to see these kids unprompted. At any rate, he has been getting more and more comfortable being with these kids as we’ve seen more of them, and they’ve been gettin more used to him, even if they’re not actually “friends.”
- Walk and Bike Around the Neighborhood: A month or two ago, we started walking around our block and other adjoining blocks. Now, in the last couple of weeks, Marco has gotten into riding his bike on these routes. So, he’s getting more and more comfortable with our neighborhood and all its details – the people, the houses, the trees, the flowers, the bumps in the sidewalks, etc. He’s also getting confidence for navigating the geography on himself, although, of course, we don’t let him cross streets on his own just yet.
So, our evening of “Playing Until the Sun Goes Down,” was no accident. We spent an awful lot of time over the past few months sowing the seeds for this. Now that it’s happened once, though, I’m going to do everything I can to get it to happen again and again…