The Perils of Unstructured Play, part 2: Mayhem

photo credit:  Flickr user 'Island-Life'


It was just after Star Wars came out—the original Star Wars, or what folks today refer to as Episode 4. My friend, Brian, and I were doing our best imitation of a climactic light saber battle, with the decidedly low tech but easily accessible substitute, sticks. I forget if I was Luke or Obi-Wan or Vader, but whoever I was I wasn’t leaving anything to The Force. I was giving it all I had, and so was Brian. It was an epic clash …


The sticks hit, mine broke, and splinters flew everywhere—including directly into my left eye. Much excruciating pain, several trips to the doctor, and two humiliating weeks of wearing an eye patch later, my eye was ok—but if it had been a slightly bigger piece of stick, who knows?Plots

I was obsessed for a good chunk of my childhood with ghosts, haunted houses, secret passageways, and anything hidden or mysterious. Fortunately we had a two-hundred year-old farm house that had its share of secret niches and dusty old attics. But that wasn’t always enough for me; I wanted to be the architect of my own secret spaces.

I was always building some new hideout or tunnel. There was no shortage of bamboo (in the summer) and snow (the rest of the year) where I lived in Maine, both of which were ideal for constructing caves and passages, so again I was lucky. But this one time I decided I wanted to get somebody. I wanted to use the engineering skills I had honed for clandestine purposes. I wanted to build a trap.

I was a practiced shoveler, and I knew all about the structural characteristics of bamboo (a hardy invasive species now prevalent in New England called Japanese Hogweed). So here was my plan: dig a hole big enough for someone to fall into, put the chunks of sod to the side, place lengths of dried bamboo across the top of the hole with the ends jammed into the sides of the hole (leaving enough space above them to replace the sod), cover the replaced sod with leaves and twigs and stuff, get someone to chase me, run past the trap (or maybe jump over it if I dared), and watch the person fall in.

Well, I managed to dig a hole about three feet long, two feet wide and one-and-a-half feet deep, which was barely big enough to count as a hole once I put the bamboo and sod in place. I did get a friend to chase me, but he just stepped on the edge and thought it was a mole hole or something. And then I got in trouble for digging up the yard. So my grandiose plans of luring an unsuspecting victim to his doom never panned out, but if they had I would have had one shining moment of satisfaction followed by what would surely have been weeks if not months or years of punishment, mistrust, and guilt.


My hours of unstructured play came close to blinding me and putting my friend in the hospital. In other moments of mayhem throughout my mostly unstructured youth, it resulted in untold cases of raging poison ivy, skunks turning to spray as we ran for cover, the clichéd-but-much-too-common rusty nail in the bottom of my foot, fleeing a neighbor’s thoroughly ticked off thousand pound bull, broken windows galore, dents in the top of the car, and so on.

But from each moment of mayhem came an indelible lesson: eyes are essential, plotting the demise of others isn’t worth it, don’t dig around old barns without a) thick-soled shoes and b) a flashlight, don’t throw sharp objects as high as you can randomly into the air, don’t try to herd cows if you’re not on a horse, watch out for shiny three-leaved plants, etc.

I credit these lessons with my mostly unblemished record of health and morality since childhood (the key word being “mostly”). You really do learn more from your mistakes—and from pain, and from guilt. Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? I got lucky, and I definitely got stronger.

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3 Responses to The Perils of Unstructured Play, part 2: Mayhem

  1. bobprobst says:

    Crazy stuff we did as kids that could have gotten us killed:

    Jumping over each other on bikes — we’d actually challenge each other by moving farther and farther from the ramp.

    Fire arrows straight up and then run for cover.

    Jump off roofs (1 story).

    Sled down steep hills in the woods and over frozen(?) streams.

    Spelunking the storm sewers.

    We dug a hole straight through a dirt pile at a construction site big enough to crawl through. When we went back the next day to hollow out a room, it had caved in!

    We spent an afternoon collecting Black Widow spiders from a variety of dark places around the neighborhood. We found 5!

  2. Mindy says:

    The “perils” described above all sound like valuable life lessons, giving children a chance to learn their physical limits and have real adventures. While there is clear danger involved in these activities, there are also huge payoffs: self-esteem, fun, trusting yourself…

    I’m concerned about the social and emotional perils of extended unstructured (or structured) time with peers. Children are spending more time than ever with their peers and less quality time with their parents and family. As a result, children are relying on their friends for emotional support, advice, and direction. Children generally value the acceptance of their peers above their family at younger and younger ages than ever before.

    I love your website and read most of the posts. I completely support unstructured peer play! I am also an advocate of a high level of parental involvement and emotional support for children and don’t think the two are mutually exclusive.

    We all have great memories of playing with our friends without adults being around. We also all have terrible memories of rejection, bullying, and other traumatic events from peers (also happening when adults aren’t around). You could say this comes with the territory of being a kid, but childhood depression and school shootings are at an all time high and the reasons children state for both are peer rejection. What seems to be going on here is that children are spending an inordinate amount of time with their peers and very little quality time with their families, and their peers’ approval matters to them more than anything else. The rejection of their peers can be completely devastating.

    The book “Hold on to your Kids” by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Md Mate is one of the only places I’ve seen this topic explored.

    I’m curious as to your viewpoint on this side of unstructured play, as I’ve read many articles and condemning parental “over-involvement” but nothing to the point of peer over-involvement. When is too much unstructured play, too much?? (Or too much peer time)?

  3. Mike Lanza says:

    Mindy – I absolutely, positively value parents’ relationship with their kids above peer relationships. However, I don’t think peers being too important to kids is the biggest problem with kids’ lives these days. After all, fathers are more involved than ever, kids are living with their parents rather than move out on their own until later and later, and parent involvement in school and extracurricular activities is absolutely unprecedented in human history.

    The big problem, as I see it, is that parents don’t grant their children enough autonomy. Of course, if lack of autonomy leads to rebellion and over-reliance on peers in the teen years, you and I could be talking about the same thing.

    I have another relevant comment. In constantly advocating for more autonomy for children, I feel like a “party out of power.” You know, in elections, the party out of power always finds it easy to just take extreme positions emphasizing one pure point of view without describing the limits. We’ve seen this in the current Presidential campaign where Barack seemingly has been backpedaling from an extreme position each week (e.g. from Iraq withdrawal timetable to let’s review conditions on the ground at the time).

    So, while I haven’t written much about the importance of the family relationship, I must acknowledge its importance in practice. Now that I think about it, what I would like to emphasize is private family relationships over community parent institutions like organized sports. The latter tends to subvert the former. Maybe I’ll write about this…

    BTW, for a view very similar to yours, see Simon Firth’s comments on this article.