When Adults Play With Kids

I'm just a big kid...

Those of us who advocate children’s play are split regarding the question, “Should adults play with kids?”

I think a better way to frame the discussion of adult involvement is to ask the question, “Should kids control their own play?”

This seemingly subtle difference is crucial.

Adults should only be involved in kids’ play if they can figure out how to let kids control what they do and how they do it. In other words, if adults participate, they should be part of the gang, not leader of the pack.The “leave those kids alone” purists out there would argue that kids can’t be in control as long as parents are around. This is the central idea behind the bestseller from the 1950s, Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing., which was profiled in a recent article on The Atlantic.

That's Marco and an older friend on the top of our playhouse. I installed rock climbing toe holds to enable him and his friends to climb up there. They do it practically every day.

I’m very sympathetic to this point of view, but in this day and age, when kids rarely find other kids when they go outside, they need all the playmates they can get.

So, I’m a very big, reliable playmate for my boys, ages 6-1/2, 3-1/2, and 1-1/2. However, I try hard to avoid forcing them to do anything in particular. They choose the games. They order me around. I do buy lots of amazing play things and install them, but once they’re installed, my boys figure out what to do with them.

I’m a play resource for my boys, not a play dictator. I’m another body for games like street hockey, a tall and strong guy for reaching and carrying things. I can make them pop up high when I jump on the trampoline with them, and I can turn on fun music in our front and back yard that energizes them.

When I see that they’re doing something I consider unwise, I tell them why I consider it unwise, but I rarely stop them. I’m more the nerdy know-it-all kid than the NO-NO-NO! grown-up.

Here’s Marco doing a crazy trampoline trick he made up himself. What kind of parent would let their little kid do a thing like that?

For instance, I let them do all sorts of daredevil things in my presence. Yes, I admit that I do speak up occasionally when I see them doing something really scary, but usually it’s to make them aware of dangers they may not be aware of (e.g. climbing on something slippery after a rain).

I let them play in the calm street in front of my house, but I do remind them often to watch out for cars. Eventually, they have learned about staying away from cars, but they’re not afraid of the street.

In our creek, I let them do things that would make environmentalists and nervous parents cringe. I utter not a word when they break sticks off trees and squash insects. I let them forage anywhere with only an occasional warning about poison oak.

My ultimate goal is for them to be independent, but to want to play with me on occasion, too. They should be able to go to friend’s house on their own to play when I’m not around, but when I’m around, I hope they’ll ask me to join in their street hockey game.

After all, we have fun playing together. They do more of the things they want to do when I’m around, and they have more fun doing it. I do, too…

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6 Responses to When Adults Play With Kids

  1. RobertH says:

    I read the Atlantic article you linked and I have to say I think it’s dead on target.

    The problem that we, as parents, face today is that, as you already noted, there aren’t enough, and often no, other kids to play with for our children. So, before our kids have no one to play with, it’s certainly better to have a parent or other adult to play with.

    But no matter how uncontrolling we are, I, for one, don’t think that playing with an uncontrolling parent comes close to playing with another child. A big part of the challenge, and also joy, of playing with other children is that other children aren’t always reasonable, want to play different games, have to be cajoled into doing whatever it is our children want to do, etc. etc. Having watched this process unfold many times, I have come to realize that I am a poor substitute at best.

    Still, what else can we do? Keeping the kids inside the house and telling them to stop complaining and do their homework or play video games certainly doesn’t strike me as a good alternative. So, play with them we must 🙂


  2. Hcons says:

    I am trying to take my neighborhood back for my kids. Getting to know my neighbors being able to text them and say the boys are in yard playing if the kids want to come down. Need to get kids out playing with kids.

  3. RobertH says:

    Hcons, I didn’t mean to sound so clueless. Both Mike and I have made major efforts to get the neighborhood kids to play with our kids, and even with some success.

    Still, at least for my kids, it simply isn’t nearly enough. In fact, the older my kids get, the less their peers are available. Reasons range from homework to parental fears about outdoor play to video games, etc.

    My daughter Sophia, now almost 12, for example is (and has for several years been) allowed to go to a convenience store several blocks away and across a major road to buy candy, ice cream or whatever. She also likes to ride her bike around the neighborhood. She has two same-age friends living across the street and around the corner, respectively, but neither is allowed to go to the store with Sophia or ride their bikes without adult supervision. Nor will they be anytime soon, perhaps not until they are in high school. In fact, my son Nicholas, 9, is allowed to do more than these two 11-year olds.

    I have talked to the parents of the two 11-year olds, but to no avail. They are simply mortally afraid both of traffic and kidnapping. And I can’t blame them, given that 99.99999999% of parents feel just like they do.

    So, at that point, I do start asking myself where we go from here. I mean, what about 2-3 years from now? At that point, my kids will essentially be doing just about anything short of driving a car. But they will be doing it alone, from what I can tell. And that, of course, is just no fun and hence my kids won’t be exercising their freedom nearly as much as they otherwise would. At the age of 12, I would ride my bike many miles from home, take the subway out of town, etc. They can’t even fathom how much fun – and confidence-building – that is.

    We have become a society of pathetic, paranoid parents (and adults in general) and our kids are paying the price 🙁

    Sorry to the rant … of course, not at all directed at you, Hcons.


  4. Daniel says:

    Great article, Mike. Just thought I’d add a link to the Playwork Principles – they’re prominently used by playworkers in the UK in Adventure Playground settings as well as other play settings.


    Their prime function is to articulate the adult’s “Support” role, but it also acknowledges the role adults have in advocating for play within policy and while working with other adult-led agendas.

  5. Heather says:

    RobertH – I didn’t think you were sounding clueless at all. I was just commenting on what I am trying.

    I agree we are becoming a society of pathetic parents and personally I am not going down without a fight!!! We are doing a great injustice to our children. We are failing to teach them basic life skills by protecting them from all the bad things out there. Frankly it is no worse out there now then it was 50 years ago, we are just bombarded by information. 50 years ago if something bad happened in the next town over you didn’t hear about it for a week. Now we get bad news from across the world in seconds and it is relentless. We are scared of the wrong things. We should be scared that there are going to be generations of kids that can’t take care of themselves!!

    No problem on the rant, I understand. I am very passionate about the same topic, I like to call it my soapbox.


  6. RobertH says:

    Heather, thanks for understanding why I got a little worked up there. 🙂

    Your point about the constant media bombardment is a very good one. The strange thing is that when you tell parents that they are just letting themselves become paranoid because of the media, they agree. But in the end, they just keep help it. They become paranoid. So, it seems something more than just awareness of the effect of media is needed.

    Our family, for one, got rid of our TV set about 12 years ago when our daughter was born. And we all – even our kids – agree that it’s a good thing we don’t watch TV. Yeah, we miss a few good shows on the Discovery Channel, etc., but even those “good channels’ are mostly crap, e.g., dog reality shows, motorcycle fixing or other , you name it. We buy or rent nature videos instead. For news, we go online. The NY Times beats TV news (including CNN) anytime.

    In some sense, we live how you said people used to live 50 years ago. We don’t know who was abducted, molested or murdered in town or in the rest of the world yesterday, and with that comes a certain freedom and breathing room. We also don’t know what the latest products on the market are or which celebrities are currently in more trouble than the others. Of course, we also have more time left for other things (including watching videos we actually like, my kids are watching Harry Potter as I write this 🙂 )

    So let me climb on my soap box again ( 🙂 ): If there is one single thing parents can do to improve their lives and the lives of their children immediately and at zero cost (in fact, you save about $500-1000 on cable charges a year), it’s turning the TV off or throwing it out altogether. It’s definitely one of the things that, in my mind, has paid huge dividends for our family and will continue to do so.

    I know it sounds a bit extreme. After all, one could perfectly well keep the TV and just not tune into the news or other worthless shows. But since it now costs a lot of money to watch TV, with cable running anywhere from $60-$200, it’s just not economic to limit oneself to “good shows” only. Those 2-3 good shows a month ( I really don’t think there are more) would end up costing around $20 a piece or more. And that’s just too much. So most people can justify the cost of cable TV only if they watch a substantial amount.

    Hence my suggestion to throw the tube out altogether. It’s a clean break, free, and after a while you wonder why you ever watched that stuff in the first place.

    Aahhhhhh, now I feel better … 🙂