Children’s Wild Fun: Do You Crave it or Avoid it?

I see dozens of expressions of raging joy like this one (my son Marco) every week, from my kids as well as from other kids.  If I don't, I feel like I'm missing something, and that I'm doing something wrong. How about you?

I discovered something very important today.

You see, I absolutely crave the sights and sounds of children having wild fun. You know – lots of screaming and laughing and running. Spontaneous. No authority, on the verge of getting out of control. Teetering on the edge between total joy and danger.

In fact, I’ve done a lot to insure that children around me, including my three boys, get to experience this regularly. Last year, I renovated my front and back yards to make them into a neighborhood hangout, and earlier this year I added a trampoline to the back yard. In addition, I go outside with my boys almost every day to play and get other kids playing with us.

All this has been working quite well. We regularly have kids over here having wild fun – at least a couple times a week. Knock on wood, no one’s gotten hurt yet. Thus far, it’s been unmitigated joy here.

What I’ve discovered is that most parents don’t have the same craving that I do. Sure, at some level, they like hearing and seeing kids having wild fun, but it’s not like a drug for them as it is for me. They can live without it.
In fact, many parents who come over to our house are quite ambivalent. Of course, they’re happy to see their kids so utterly joyful, but they can’t help thinking other thoughts that drag them down. I imagine that they’re thinking things like, “My kid might get hurt.” “Oh jeez, now she’s going to ask me for a back yard like this. I can’t afford it!” “I hope I can drag him out of here in the next 10 minutes without crying so we can make that birthday party.” “How am I ever going to get her to bed tonight when she’s so overstimulated?”

Intellectually, I understand inner chatter like this, but I don’t experience it. It simply doesn’t pop up into my head. I just feel total joy as kids have wild fun at my house.

This difference between me and other parents manifests itself in all sorts of ways. For instance, I found the kindergarten classes I visited at my neighborhood public school last year depressing because I never saw any kid animated and having wild fun. Other parents love the atmosphere there because kids are under control, focused on learning. Can five-year-olds have wild fun and learn at the same time? I totally think so. In fact, many childhood experts contend that they learn even better.

I also found an organized baseball game of seven year-olds that I attended last weekend depressing because I saw zero evidence of wild fun. 20 or 25 kids get together for an hour and a half outside to “play,” and not one of them screams-and-laughs? Other parents think seeing their kids hitting, pitching and fielding with uniforms on is totally cute. I see a bunch of kids far less happy than they would be if they were playing wildly, as they do in my yard. Isn’t fun the most important goal of youth sports? You’d never know this from the way kids look at these baseball and soccer games. It’s dreadful, in my opinion.

Furthermore, my concept of a good kid party is totally different from that of most other parents. I like to gather a bunch of kids together in a stimulating place (e.g. my yard) and let ’em go wild. No structure, no schedule. Usually, they want to play indefinitely, until their parents drag them away. Most of the other kid parties I’ve attended are at dedicated play centers like gyms or bouncy house centers or parks. Parents or paid workers say “do this,” then “do that.” Some wild fun might creep in at some point, but for the most part, it’s quite under control.

So, what’s different between me and most of the other parents I know? I have a deep belief in the power of pure happiness. Wild fun is the best manifestation of this in kids. Kids have wild fun when they play freely. Adults, or at least adults who act like “adults” by guiding play, end up inhibiting free play.

My belief means that I think that all sorts of good things happen when kids, or adults, for that matter, are totally happy. The kind of happiness I’m thinking of is more like “flow” than hedonistic pleasure. When people experience this kind of happiness, they are at their best in every way. They appreciate others and have the capacity to be very kind. They create great friendships. They also can be very focused mentally. They think deeply and clearly and creatively. Finally, well, people who have frequent bursts of intense happiness tend to be happy people in their everyday lives. That, my friends, is the holy grail of life, in my opinion.

It’s significant to note that I hold this belief in wild fun very deeply. Parents who don’t hold this belief deeply – perhaps those who merely read about it rather than live it their entire lives – are very likely to listen to those voices in their head that tell them other things are more important than wild fun. After all, wild fun is more dangerous than adult-administered faux-fun. It may conflict with getting homework done for tomorrow. It may antagonize institutional forces that depend on compliance.

In short, seeking a life of wild fun for your kids may mean that they get more bumps and bruises and don’t conform to what the world asks of them in the childhood years. That’s totally fine with me – I think bumps and bruises build character, and I want my kids to exceed the world’s expectations, not meet them – but this clearly isn’t a path for every parent to follow.

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5 Responses to Children’s Wild Fun: Do You Crave it or Avoid it?

  1. Aleksandar_Totic_FB says:

    If I remember correctly from my own childhood, wild fun has always been suspect by grownups, and quickly brought under control. They were total killjoys. But we were smart enough to do the really fun stuff out of sight.

    It is a “total surveilance parenting” paradox. We love our kids, and we never let them out of our sight, especially in new, fun environment. We get to see what kid’s fun really is, which is doing stuff that is really annoying to us: shouting, fighting, making a mess. So we stop it, and kill the fun.

    I wonder whether kids will learn to avoid us as they grow. My 4yo is starting to develop a sence that serious mischief is best done where I can’t see it.

  2. Mike Lanza says:

    Often, I instigate kids into exploring their wild sides, so that they think that I’m just a big version of them. Unfortunately, parents who see this will often treat me like a total loser after that. I’m like a Benedict Arnold to them, a traitor. The unwritten code among parents is that we all agree that our jobs are to keep kids under control. When I instigate ’em rather than control ’em, I’m committing treason.

  3. Anabel says:

    I admit that I have a hard time with total chaos. I really like kids running free, having a great time, and I understand the value of it. I take my kids to the park for our homeschoolers park day each week for several hours just so they can run around and play without too much parental influence. However, like so many others, I was raised in a no-wild-play environment and struggle, truly struggle, to let wild play go unabated. I can handle it until the kids get into situations where someone really could get hurt, and then I’m right there with the other parents, putting an end to it or redirecting the play.

    Just today we were at a friends’ house, and I was doing ok with the 6 kids (ages 7, 6, 5, 3, 2-1/2, and 2, almost all girls) running around wildly, but then another family arrived with 3 boys (somewhere in the 4-9 year old range) and I couldn’t handle it. We left after about an hour.

    I think environment plays a big role for me. At the park, I do better. At my own house, I’m terrible. At this particular friends’ house, a neighbor was working from home (increasing my stress) and I knew from experience that two of the really young kids could get out of the gates on their own. It was really, really hard to relax.

    I always find your posts interesting because it’s nice to see someone arguing for play. I do wish we had a yard so we could create a good playzone. I’m glad that your playzone has thus far been on the joy side of the tightrope you’re walking as you instigate the wild.

  4. Anabel says:

    I would edit the above to add this, but I can’t find it… when I finished the note above I opened a note from our apartment complex. It informed me that every time my children use sidewalk chalk outside our door we will need to wash it away immediately. It is considered “tagging”. Is it no wonder that parents are as nervous and restrictive as they are? How likely is it that I (or other parents) would continue to allow free coloring of that sort when we know that every single time they do it we have to wash it away.

    Frustration.

  5. Mike says:

    Anabel – By and large, I like when kids engage in “tagging.” It shows that they are taking pride in a place. Sidewalk chalk is so harmless.