Should Adults Help Kids Play?

Penny Wilson, a leading Playworker from England.  photo credit:

When I was a kid, we didn’t need any adults around to play. In fact, if any adults showed up, our play slowed down. We became self-conscious, wondering if we would get yelled at for things like making too much physical contact or almost breaking a window. Adults inhibited our play, rather than encouraging it.

So, why are so many parents who want kids to play spending so much time playing with their kids these days? I ran a “neighborhood summer camp” last month. If a parent had tried this in my old neighborhood, we kids would have hated it.

Beyond parents, a new profession has emerged called “playworker.” Different from the playground monitors who patrolled my school playground, only intervening if a child’s safety was at risk, a playworker’s job is to facilitate children’s play in a playground. In other words, they get directly involved in children’s play experience, rather than merely monitor their safety.

Paradoxically, both I and playworker advocates such as the Alliance for Childhood advocate “free play” or “unstructured play” – i.e. play that is not mediated or controlled by adults. So, how can we justify our active, hands-on involvement in children’s play?
Well, the fact is that very, very few children play freely these days. On the rare occasions when children find themselves outside with some time and nothing to do, most of them seem lost, out of place. Sadly, most children in America and other Western countries don’t know how to play. Strange as it may seem, the ability to play freely for hours is a skill that needs to be learned.

So, if play is a skill, not an instinct as many of us have always had believed, how did earlier generations of kids learn it with no adults around? Children back then were raised in neighborhoods that had a culture of large group play that was passed down from older children to younger children. Older kids would take leadership roles because they knew the rules of games and could articulate them. They were more emotionally mature, so they came to command respect for adjudicating disputes and making decisions about what we would play, where, and with whom. Finally, well, they were physically bigger and stronger, and would use intimidation to enforce their will if they had to.

The older kids weren’t particularly fond of younger kids, but they needed them to fill out their large group activities like team sports games (e.g. baseball, football, basketball, and soccer), chase games (capture the flag, hide and go seek, and tag), fort building, and fantasy play (house, doctor, etc.).

Large group play was inherently mixed age because of the need for large numbers of children. When the oldest kids got too old for these large group activities, usually around the puberty years, younger tweens who were next in line would rise to leadership roles. In this way, a neighborhood’s culture of play was passed on from generation to generation of kids.

Most neighborhoods today have no culture of children’s play. They are wastelands. There are virtually no kids playing at all. When kids do play in neighborhoods, they play in small numbers, usually two (i.e. one-on-one play). While play in America’s neighborhoods is scarce, large group play is scarcer. Thus, there is no built-in mechanism for passing down play culture from older kids to younger kids.

We adults who are actively guiding young kids’ play activities are taking on that older kid role. Like older kids, we decide what to play, where to play, and with whom, and we adjudicate disputes.

However, our power over young kids is naturally more absolute than that of older kids, so we need to consciously “back off” when we’re guiding their play. Our goal should be to grow our little kids into big kids, the leaders of play in their neighborhoods. We should let them go beyond their comfort zone at times to prepare them for leadership, and we should be prepared to get totally out of the picture when the older kids are ready to be leaders.

An analogy for adults’ involvement in children’s neighborhood play is affirmative action. Affirmative action is intended to help society recover from a history of discrimination, but it is not intended as a permanent solution. When traditionally disadvantaged groups reach equality, so the theory goes, affirmative action policy will no longer be needed. Similarly, when children come to recover their own play culture, and can transmit it from generation to generation, adult intervention in play will no longer be needed.

Our goal should always be to “put ourselves out of a job” as much as possible. That’s a lot easier to do for parents who facilitate their children’s play than it is for playworkers who make their livings facilitating play. While I applaud their sorely needed efforts today, I sincerely hope they’ll get out of the way when they’re no longer as necessary.

Some skeptics may scoff that that day will never come, but I’m absolutely determined to make it happen. If it doesn’t happen, we will have failed our kids and added legitimacy to those who favor adult control of children’s lives.

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8 Responses to Should Adults Help Kids Play?

  1. Michael Wood-Lewis says:

    Hi Mike… good stuff, as always. I’m not so sure about some of your assertions. In my own young kids, play seems built-in. We’re home schooling our three youngest kids (ages 3, 5 and 6) and they play all day on their own… sometimes formal games they’ve been taught, but much more often just running around, making stuff, sword fighting with sticks, playacting a book they’ve been read, etc. No older kids are showing them how to do this stuff. I think if there was only one of them… or even just two… there would be much less play. So, while older kids handing down the rules for kickball or whatever is certainly a factor, I wonder if critical mass of kids each with enough shared free time isn’t the more relevant underlying issue.

  2. Mike Lanza says:

    Michael – Your experience with your children is interesting. I agree that perhaps having a number of kids with enough shared free time may be most important for getting kids playing. However, if we add mixed age with older kids to this, then there’s a mechanism for passing down a complex culture of game rules, folklore, etc.

  3. Michael Wood-Lewis says:

    Mike… just working from two data points now… my distant childhood (youngest of five siblings spread over six years in a neighborhood bursting with kids in the 1960-70s… and my set of young kids today in a neighborhood with a good number of kids, but in a very different time). I’d guess that the influence of older kids and game playing is a big factor when present, but not necessary for some kids, especially when there’s a critical mass of kids with sufficient free time. Also, I speculate that the older kids with their “here’s how we play kick the can” comes a little later… the kids under 5 may not be able to keep up or may not have interest in the “big kid games.” Just brainstorming… all very much in my thoughts these days as I had a little more time watching my kids the past several days and so I just let them go… wow… and go they did… each room of the house and every bit of yard is strewn with artifacts of play… go, go, go all day long… and no older kids involved or modeling. Okay, back to work for me! Keep up the good stuff Mike!

  4. Mike Lanza says:

    Michael – I do think that the greatest loss is for kids over 5, when they can start playing games with complex rules and folklore.

    Re folklore, in my ‘hood we often talked of a mythical athlete called “Joe Bunda” who would always make the dramatic last play. As an adult, I learned that other neighborhoods in and around Pittsburgh also talked about the mythical Joe Bunda. Cool…

  5. Michael Wood-Lewis says:

    Hey! I said I got to get some work done tonight… but you keep drawing me back in… Joe Bunda… love it. Here’s fuel for a future blog post…

    Much of what I think about and what I read on this blog comes back to sports and athletic and competitive team games we played as kids in the 1960-70s… all day and night if we could… traditional sports in pick-up sandlot style to neighborhood specialties (Ghost of Midnight was ours… kind of like Kick the Can, but at night in dark clothing).

    Well… kids sports are RADICALLY different than they used to be… it’s all about adult involvement… organizing, coaching, cheering, boostering, driving, camps, etc. Wow… fun, maybe, but nothing like all the neighborhood sports we played as kids.

    A fella in the next neighborhood recently posted on Front Porch Forum ( that he and his son would host an informal weekly pick-up soccer game for 6-10 year olds in the park on Tuesday evenings… every kid showed up with an adult. Well, I love his idea and initiative, but I hope this weekly game takes off and sheds the adults, but I doubt it will.

  6. Daniel says:

    Mike – this was a tremendous post.

    Certainly, a lot of my research has been about Adventure Playgrounds and playwork – and to a fair extent, I do think that arena (plus perhaps a few very progressive early childhood settings, like LPSI and other Reggio-inspired settings) is one where adults have managed to skillfully and adeptly find ways of supporting play and being present for it while not controlling it or, for the most part, changing the underlying dynamics of it. There’s also a fair point to be made (I’m thinking of Stuart Brown here) that all species play – adults and children alike, and there’s certainly opportunity for cross-“species” play between, say, a parent and his or her children. But as you allude, children’s play should never be defined alone by adults’ contributions, and the bent should clearly always lean toward unstructured, self-sufficient – and largely autonomous – child-driven play.

    In a perfect world, then, even Adventure Playgrounds would be out of business fairly quickly. I love movies like “The Sandlot,” that portray this wonderfully evocative subculture of children’s play – one that’s truly derived and sustained by the children themselves, immersed in this kind of child-spread folklore you talk about. I do love Chudacoff’s claim that children’s ability to subvert and take claim to things will always exist – but it does seem they’re fighting against an awfully big anti-play culture right now.

    Anyway, I’m glad you’ve sparked this discussion; I might’ve said this before, but I truly think both the “Free Range Kids” and “Playborhood” movements are tremendous catalysts for this kind of culture change. We adults can’t engineer this kind of culture ourselves, but we can be mindful of it and find ways of balance, offering control of their own play culture over to children.

  7. Marghanita says:

    Brilliantly written. I too, am determined to make it happen with the help from my little eco warriors who encourage kids to get outside and discover nature-The Little Humbugs.
    When children and nature mix, something magical happens. All children deserve that magic!

    Marghanita Hughes, children’s author & illustrator wanting to make a difference!

  8. sanfelice says:

    There is a HUGE unspoken reason for what Mike is talking about and that is the simple and undeniable fact that parents nowadays are far older than the prior generations. That added “wisdom” (in the form of added neuroses) are what, I believe, are the primary motivators for helicopter parenting. After all, we’re all too old to keep reproducing, these kids will be our last gasp at generational certainty so how can we not expect to hover?

    Can anyone imagine someone like Mike (or the rest of us who read this blog) going through anything like this hand-wringing prior to the 1970s? Really, worrying about how kids play! How insane!

    But, of course, we’re here reading this and contributing because there is a disconnect with how we want our kids to be and how we see society forming their still-mushy grey matter.