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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