By Rachel Pieh Jones
“If we love our children and want them to thrive, we must allow them more time and opportunity to play, not less.” Peter Gray
Behind my childhood home was an open field. My dad cut a hole in our fence so all the neighborhood kids could climb through and go exploring. There was a creek way, way in the back, so remote it was on the other side of the world. Maybe half a mile away. I couldn’t see my house from beside the trickle of water. Even better, I couldn’t be seen by anyone at my house. There was also a massive hole that we called ‘The Hole.’ So big I could fit inside it with my two sisters and a couple of friends. So big we could cover it with cardboard and snow in the winter and sit up inside, scrunched down, sipping hot chocolate or chicken noodle soup from thermoses. So big an adult wouldn’t dare climb down inside. There was an old wagon wheel abandoned alongside a trail, surely left behind by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s contemporaries or settlers headed west. There were fuzzy green plants that made perfect diapers for Cabbage Patch dolls and that sometimes made our fingers itch.
I’m sure my memories of this field are all wrong. Now it is a bland corporate office and parking lot. But when it was wild, it was where I learned about nature and conflict resolution and patience and courage and how to tell a story. My younger sister might still believe the one about the settlers.
I’m also sure my parents accompanied us into the field at least a few times but I have zero actual memories of being behind the cut up fence with an adult. The kids in my neighborhood played kickball or bike racing in the street, we fought and quit and apologized and made up. We negotiated teams and when we got bored or when one team won, we headed to the field.
In short, we played. Outside. Even in winter. In Minnesota.
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My kids tell me some of their favorite memories are of events of which I have no recollection because I wasn’t there. My son climbed over the wall around our house in Djibouti with his Congolese friend and they explored the house that was under construction next door. My daughter collected discarded French military bullets on chaperone-less hikes up a steep hill at the beach. My youngest daughter kneels on top of our wall, nestled into a sea of bougainvillea blossoms and bottles of her personally mixed ‘magic potions’, and spies on the Ethiopian guards who sit in the shade at our front gate. She doesn’t know what they are talking about but enjoys being higher than someone and the unique perspective her position grants of our street.
My kids have time to climb and explore and gather and observe because school ends at 12:45 and there are few extracurricular activities to engage in. I used to bemoan this lack of activities in Djibouti. If I wanted my kids to learn a skill, I had to teach it to them. My husband started the soccer club and coached it. I taught the kids piano, even though I don’t play piano. (This also taught them about minor miracles.) I taught them English, since their education has been in French. I ran the Sunday School program. My husband taught them how to sew and paint and build shelves and swim.
Locally available activities over the years? Intermittently: judo and tennis and dance. So, my kids participated in judo and tennis and dance when they could. But when school ends at noon and there is (maybe) an organized activity for one hour, they are still left with vast swaths of unscheduled free time.
What is a kid to do? They play. Unobserved and unguided.
I initially looked at the limited options available for my kids and saw a detriment, thought I had to teach them everything, thought that if an adult didn’t guide and instruct, my kids wouldn’t learn. But what if, in order to learn, they didn’t need to be taught? What if they simply needed to play?
Peter Gray says, “…playing is learning. At play, children learn the most important of life’s lessons, the ones that cannot be taught in school. To learn these lessons well, children need lots of play — lots and lots of it, without interference from adults.”
Kids need to build Lego mansions and create labyrinths out of pillows. They need to dress up, stage Nerf gun battles, and design soccer games that can be played even in miniature yards. They need to imagine they are kings and queens and serfs and astronauts. They need to solve problems, make rules, lead and follow and compromise. My kids chase butterflies, discover newborn kittens in the cranny under our kayak, learn how to use a magnifying glass to burn a hole in a leaf and how to fry an egg on the street in August.
Sometimes they will get bored if I don’t structure every minute of their day and I’ve decided that’s good for them. It is certainly not suffering for a kid to be bored. It’s essential to their development and I’m glad mine have time to get bored and to create their way out of it.
I can’t cut a hole in the solid cement block wall around our house in Djibouti like my dad did in our fence but I can cut a hole in my parenting and let the kids climb through, climb out. I can let them play.
Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at:Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.