Playing Ball With No Adults Around

The movie 'Sandlot,' pictured above, is most kids' only exposure to pickup baseball these days.

Many of my best childhood memories involve playing pickup games with no adults around. Yes, I played organized baseball – Little League, for instance – but those experiences simply don’t compare with pickup games with my neighborhood buddies.

I would argue that pickup ball is both more fun and better for children’s social and intellectual development. It’s also more inclusive, or egalitarian.

In this article, I’ll discuss each of these advantages of “pickup ball,” and then conclude by analyzing why it’s vanishing from American childhoods.Social Development
Think about all the social tasks you had to perform in playing a pickup game that kids of today don’t have to for their organized sports games:

  • Decide What to Play: There’s no “schedule” of pickup games – they’re ad hoc by definition. So, children have to decide on the game, and that’s unavoidably a social process.
  • Recruit Players: Organized baseball takes a minimum of 18 players. It’s never the case that 18 kids just show up in a neighborhood looking for something to play. Depending on what game is played, two to six kids might be the minimum. In fact, most of the time, kids need to get creative to find enough kids to play to make a real game.
  • Decide Where to Play: When and who’s playing can affect where the kids decide to play. “Should we play in _____’s backyard? The street? The nearby school field that has a backstop?” More negotiations are in order here.
  • Improvise Rules: Which field the kids decide on and how many kids are playing usually necessitates improvised rules. “What’s a home run?” If each team has only three players in the field, perhaps the foul line should be moved. “How many bases can a runner advance on an overthrow?” “Can runners steal bases?” Kids need to decide on these and other rules each game, depending on circumstances.
  • Implement the Rules: “Was that a fair ball?” “Is s/he safe or out?” In pickup games, kids have to work out these issues on their own.
  • Decide How to Conclude the Game: Most pickup baseball games don’t end after nine innings, and pretty much all games that are timed in their organized forms (e.g. basketball, football) are not timed when no adult referees are around. Thus, kids have to decide when the game will end. Remember suggestions like these? – “The first team to 10 wins, win by two.” “Next inning’s the last.” Or, how about my favorite? – “Let’s play until we can’t see the ball anymore…”
  • Balancing the Desire to Win With Other Objectives: Certainly , winning has always been very important to all children in pickup games, but kids in pickup games must constantly calibrate their behavior to take into account other important objectives such as “being liked” or “being able to arrange another game tomorrow.” When kids themselves decide who’s safe and who’s out, or how hard to play when your team is already up by eight runs, they have a lot to consider. For instance, it’s pretty stupid to push hard to get your player ruled “safe” if you’re already up by eight runs and kids on the other side seem to be having a bad time out there.

Intellectual Development
The legendary child development theorist Jean Piaget wrote about how children develop moral reasoning through their independent game playing in “The Moral Judgment of the Child.” In the course of growing up playing marbles, early 20th century Swiss children moved beyond a state of “moral realism,” in which they just accept rules without understanding the need for them or the logic behind them. As they played games where they encountered new unforeseen situations, they came to their own understanding of why rules are actually needed. They grappled with issues of fairness, equity, and the administrative cost of creating and applying new rules.

Piaget argued that experiences like this play a vital role in helping children grow to a more mature stage of moral development.

It’s quite possible that children who never have deep experience deciding all these issues never develop beyond that moral reasoning state where rules are accepted as given. In an excellent essay called “The Organization Kid,” David Brooks, currently a New York Times columnist and Lehrer News Hour commentator, argues that elite college students of today devote a tremendous amount of energy toward working within a set of rules while barely, if ever, questioning the rules themselves.

“It’s very rare to get a student to challenge anything or to take a position that’s counter to what the professor says.” Robert Wuthnow, a Princeton sociologist, lamented, “They are disconcertingly comfortable with authority. That’s the most common complaint the faculty has of Princeton students. They’re eager to please, eager to jump through whatever hoops the faculty puts in front of them, eager to conform.”

These kids perform fabulously on tests, but they have gaping holes in intellectual abilities that tests don’t measure. What is fair and just? What’s a better widget? What’s a better way to do something? Questions like these aren’t on the SAT or AP exams, but it’s pretty difficult to argue that answering them well has nothing to do with intellectual development. It horrifies me to think that we’re raising a generation of kids who have scant ability to think outside the box, or to question the box itself…

As I mentioned before, pickup games are chronically in need of players, so kids must constantly find bodies to play. This fact creates a built-in bias toward egalitarianism among kids.

Our rule in our neighborhood was, if you understood the basic concepts of the game and didn’t whine too much, we wanted you. We wanted Bobby, the mentally retarded kid across the street. We wanted David, the deaf kid down the block. We wanted any girl who wanted to play. We wanted little kids who could handle playing with us.

And we wanted them not only for today, but we wanted them to come back tomorrow and the day after. Thus, we cared a lot about whether each and every kid enjoyed playing. That meant that we would pitch slower to kids who weren’t as good. Sometimes we would let rules slide a bit – “OK, that’s a fair ball!” – to let them get a hit.

Sure, even given all this bending, we still wanted to win a great deal, but we balanced this need with the need to let the lesser athletes among us have a good time.

Why Are Pickup Games Going Away?
Notwithstanding all these great benefits, pickup games have largely vanished from our culture. In fact, most kids have never gotten together with other kids to organize a sports game on their own. Why is this?

  • Parents Delude Themselves That Their Child Can be a Superstar Athlete: Some people argue that organized sports are a better environment to hone athletic skills. While this opinion is not universal, for the purposes of this article, it is sufficient to state that most parents believe this. So, parents who place a high priority on having their kids achieve the highest level of skill possible favor organized sports over pickup games. To the extent that these parents’ goals are for their children to become professional athletes, they are largely delusional. There is practically zero chance that any given child will make a good living as a professional athlete.
  • Kids Stay Inside More: Far more children spend their free time inside in front of screens (videogames, computers, and TV) today than did so decades ago.
  • Parents Rarely Let Their Kids Outside on Their Own: Many parents are fearful of the risks of letting their children play outside on their own, so they rarely, if ever, let them do it. However, as I wrote in a previous article, kids who are driven around to organized activities are at greater risk of death than those who roam close to home. As for the concern about sports-related injuries, kids today are less likely than kids decades ago to break bones and are more likely to develop “overuse” injuries (e.g. torn rotator cuff) due to the shift from pickup sports to organized sports.
  • Parents Overmanage Their Kids’ Lives: Highly driven parents in America have developed a tendency to “overmanage” their children’s lives. Thus, most parents want to get directly involved in their kids’ sporting activities than just let them do it for themselves. I wrote an article about this phenomenon entitled, Why is it a Good Idea for Adults to Control Kids’ Sports?. As I say there, I think that parents’ time with their children would be better spent having quality family time at home rather than driving all around practically every day accommodating multiple sports team schedules.
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