Let's Play

By Silken Laumann on March 15, 2007
I am a passionate proponent of unstructured free play for kids. I know how to play with my kids and how to get them connected with neighborhood kids. Hell, I even wrote a book about it. And yet, admittedly, last fall, structure sort of crept up on us. One music lesson a week, two soccer commitments, one dance evening, one night of tutoring, and we were back on that treadmill. Add on homework, evening reading, the inevitable doctor and dentist appointments, and mom's role shifts from chief nurturer to chief organizer. If those of us who are passionate and committed to the need for kids to enjoy unstructured playtime and lots of physical activity are struggling to find time for it, what about everybody else?

When we were kids, play wasn't something our parents scheduled. It just happened. Play happened when we walked home from school with a buddy and then met a few more friends. We played ball hockey or hauled out old wooden tennis racquet's and volleyed on a dead end street. We rode our bicycles. Mastering the bicycle was the key to real freedom because it unlocked the adventures that could be had, not one block over, but 10 or 12 blocks away. None of us considered we were exercising or practicing or building social skills. We were just being kids.

Creating time for play in a family is an act of intention.

Play: A simple word that is the essence of what it means to be a child

In Sanskrit, the word is Lila, meaning something more: a play connected with the divine, the embracing of the moment, the spontaneous unfolding of the imagination. Yet play in our culture has been relegated to those under three, something that babies do. Our children exercise, join sports and develop their motor skills. Play is no longer something organic, joyful and spontaneous. Children improve their bone density and balance their caloric intake. I regularly hear health experts talk about kids exercising, or parents worrying that their children are going to miss that ill-defined window of opportunity to excel in sports or music or languages.

I don't remember trying every sport before I was 12, and my conversations with current Olympians reveal a pattern of active childhood rather than intense focus on one sport.


Trust Your Instincts As A Parent
We are the generation of the hyper vigilant. When pregnant with my son William, I bought a food grinder so my son wouldn't have to eat the canned stuff. I bought cloth diapers. Two weeks into sleep deprivation, I ditched the cloth for the store-bought kind. I vowed to never give my son formula until my son's nonstop diet caused me to collapse with exhaustion. Necessity was the invention of humility. I began to figure out that I could parent in a way that made sense to me and my life. This faith in my own inner knowledge has been central to my experience in mothering, but it has taken courage to follow as my children grow.

As the experts continue to tell us what is best for our kids, we need to find the courage to connect with our deeper wisdom. That wisdom tells us childhood is a unique time in human development, that play is good for kids, and that our children deserve to have more time in their families, schools and communities to play. In a culture that bombards us with the serious business of being a parent, we need to find the courage to follow what we know intuitively.


Freeing Your Family For Play
Creating time for play in a family is an act of intention. It means unscheduling one or two nights a week to meet the neighbourhood kids at the park. It means making sure that every minute of every day isn't so chock-a-block full that there's no possibility of a family walk or 20 minutes for pick-up basketball.

It's the little things that make a big difference in keeping our kids healthy and well. A car packed with a soccer ball, skipping rope and a Frisbee is a toolkit for fun. In our neighbourhood, we have connected with others and started a Play in the

Park night. Neighbours work together to supervise the park one night a week and all the kids in the neighbourhood are invited to play. This has been a great way for families to get to know one another, and for kids to experience kick-the-can and capture- the-flag.


Playing When It's 40 Below
In Rouleau, Saskatchewan, negative 40 weather means Play in the Park becomes Open Gym night. Some nights, half of the six hundred people that live there are in the school playing floor hockey, learning to cook healthy meals, or playing a cooperative game.

Sometimes, opening a school after hours may mean fighting a battle with the school board. Many of us believe our schools are community assets that should be open to the community after hours. British Columbia and Ontario have put significant money into community schools. In Ontario, many schools are open to the community free of charge, after the school day.


Getting Started
At Silken's Active Kids movement, we know that so many communities are being charged with the same challenge: getting your community, your school, your family more active.

But where do you start? Inspiration and sharing ideas are an important part of how people are moved to action. There are many organizations and individuals who really know how to get kids moving, who know how to motivate that child who has lost confidence and doesn't want to try, and who know how to create environments where play is encouraged and supported. We can learn from these people and pass that valuable information around.


Stopping The Trend To Inactivity And Childhood Obesity
A friend of mine, just returned to Canada after 15 years in Norway, says it is almost implausible how much our communities have changed. Fifteen years ago, kids were riding their bikes around the neighbourhood, walking to school, playing actively in the school yard, but not today. It is up to us to decide how the next fifteen years will unfold. Will we let this trend of inactivity and childhood obesity continue to gain momentum? Will we reconnect with our own inner wisdom about children's need for physical play time? Or will we let our fear continue to erode our connection to the community and to each other?

A Skipping Rope And A Song
We are a generation of parents who experienced free play, who knew how to spontaneously pick up a skipping rope and start a song, who knew how to create a game when in a group of our friends. We know how to change our mood by getting some fresh air. We understand the connection between a fit body, a healthy diet and feeling great. Our caring for our children is deep and we have done a great job in keeping our children safe. Now we need to focus on keeping them well, their bodies strong enough to run and jump and climb, their minds clear from a balance of fresh air and exercise, their souls buoyed by the sheer joy of running, jumping and playing. PC

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