I was a lucky girl. My parents not only allowed me to play outdoors freely, they often demanded I go outside and find something to do: Don’t return until the streetlights flick on. Reading an article recently in The Atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2018/04/free-range-parenting/557051/) that discusses the dissonance between classes and races when it comes to this “new” concept called “Free Range parenting,” I had to laugh. While the author makes a valid and stimulating point, I was thinking about her lost opportunity to discuss the benefits of this “Free range parenting.” I mean, for millennia, parents of all races and social strata have practiced it until the aberration of the 1990s when fearful parents began to cling to their children and control their every move.
Luckily, for the sake of a child’s creativity and intelligence, as well as the sake of teachers everywhere, we are swinging back to allowing our children to play like I did as a child.
Typically, when people criticize today’s lack of childhood “free” play, they target organized sports because they believe there are lessons in relationships and authority lost in the modern multitude of organized teams, today’s prime, often forced, activity for children and their parents. However, the benefits I gained through “free-range” playing were not only an understanding of interpersonal dynamics, but also the foundations of a budding scientist and artist, maybe even an academic.
In my adventures outdoors, I set shoe box traps for rabbits, laid out dandelion pulp for mice and brought home accidentally dug up baby moles. We rescued baby birds and placed them gently in nests, then would hide, waiting to make sure their mothers returned; they always did. My friends and I captured all sorts of insects: lady bugs, red and black ants, daddy long legs, pill bugs, deadly black widows, trapdoor spiders, bumble bees, honey bees, hornets, wasps. . .We played with most and killed the scariest, smooshing them when we were too young to respect their rights.
Various reptiles and amphibians amazed us, causing us to sit still and watch them hunt. My brother and I would scoop up frog eggs or new tadpoles and bring them home to watch them gain their legs and lose their tails, returning them to ponds when they were hopping frogs. We’d attempt to rescue lizards who gave up their own tails when our cats grabbed them excitedly, but more often the speedy reptiles would keep on trucking sure to grow more. . .All of this taught us naturally the foundations often illuminated in early biology lessons: exoskeleton, endoskeleton, regeneration, eggs versus live birth, mammal versus reptile, etc.
While left to our own entertainment, we kids would find chunks of quartz that we thought were diamonds. When my father told us where we might find more, we’d try to break open rocks searching for what treasure might be inside. How many pirate, explorer fantasies did we act out that developed our literary sense. Pieces of mica that looked like mirrors and glass made us think, hmm, is this how a mirror is made? Did this lead to the invention of glass? Shale that we could crunch with the tires of our bikes made us feel as powerful as superheroes. The coal that kicked up when we were walking on forbidden train tracks was so pure and black, making us wonder, really? Future diamonds?
We’d pick up chalk-like rocks to draw on the tarmac, marking our four square and hopscotch games, even the bases for kickball. And of course, sand and mud were everyone’s favorite media. A girlfriend and I used to shape figurines of ladybugs and snowmen out of the clay in our yards, paint them with our cheap tempura paints, and try to sell our artwork by the side of the road in front of our house. Imagine how much more interesting geology lessons are with this personal knowledge of the variety of rocks that make up Earth.
And then comes the blending of geology and physics that I learned on my own. My friends and I played in creeks, looking for crawdaddies, racing leaf boats, building dams. We built castles and motes and canals in the sand. The movement of water, creeks, and rivers, brooks and ponds, even oceans and tides all showed us the power and etherealness of water. The weight of it, the random choice that it takes as it tracks through our fingers, the holes and patterns that it makes in the rocky, sandy, mucky edges and piles of pepples held our imagination. The power water has to move and float us and suck us under was wonderfully frightening. With these experiences I could easily understand what the teacher told me about erosion and flooding and water tables beneath the ground.
In the warming Spring, we’d race one another, rolling down grassy hills or skating too fast around curves. We’d climb trees, sometimes falling from too high only to have the the wind knocked out of us. We’d build teeter totters out of logs and rocks and ledges where we could balance and play king of the hill. Or we’d grab onto thick vines to swing across what we imagined were deep ravines, pretending we were Spiderman. My brother and I would ride our bikes into ever shrinking circles or figure eights, losing control when the wheels were moving way too slowly.
All this movement, whether we knew it or not, gave us a personal understanding of gravity, weights and balances.
In fact, when my pal Bitt Nelson rode his bike over a ramp we had set on a pile of sand at a construction site, and flew too far, only to bash his face on a sand loader, forcing his front teeth into his sinuses, we certainly adjusted ourselves. We didn’t stop riding, but we learned faster than he ran home crying what we had to change not to repeat his catastrophe.
And when summer came, sitting on hot car hoods, standing in shade to find relief from the scorching sun, noticing how much hotter the black tar is versus the white painted line down the middle of the road, the cool of grass, the heat of concrete, the burn of asphalt, we learned quickly about heat transfer and what could relieve it. We learned the simple exhaustion that comes from spending the whole day physically rushing and rough housing and playing, planting, digging, climbing. How hungry we’d get playing and then begging our mothers for something to snack on, assuring her it would not ruin our dinner, quickly understanding why breakfast is the most important meal of the day. All these moments created a vague knowledge of energy.
Years ago, when we played our disorganized sports-the impromptu baseball and football games run by only children- true. . .we learned negotiation and authority as people do say, but also the geometry of boundaries, the physics of messing around with a ball. Sometimes games were not impromptu but scheduled, by us, for us. See you Saturday, right? Behind the Olsen’s house?
We figured things out ourselves, like what qualities draw others to a person, like those in Brian Culpepper who was often our favorite captain of street football games or meadow baseball. Why was adorable Theresa Olsen always picked last in games of football? (Not because she was too slow or too uncoordinated or even too unpopular. . .she was finicky and prissy and whined too much.) Yet we let her play, for we also learned to be nice from each other, allowing the little kids who could never score join the teams because they were ours, a part of our neighborhood. We shared which neighbor’s yard was welcoming and which neighbor was off limits. We’d say, Don’t hit it so hard that it goes into Herr Golembush’s yard, don’t run so fast that you can’t stop before you slam into the Nelson’s rose bushes. The Base is the yellow yield sign, the ball is a foul if it passes the camellias. . .
How often when they play an organized team sport are today’s children welcome to just goof around and test the ball? Seeing how fast the ball could roll up, down, or over a hill, how fast hitting it squarely mattered, the arc of the hit, the lob, the toss, the strength of the bounce, the angle of the bounce. . .They are told how to hit in today’s games. And do they learn which player is the best at the game themselves without being told? Or whose yard is the best for that game that day? Or who is on whose team? Almost never. Adults decide the who, what, where, when and why of each sport, directing children on how slow, how fast to play, and even what to see and what not to see.
I suggest not only should children play disorganized sports with no adult supervision, but just play. Just simple, imagination-full play. Yes, The Atlantic makes a valid point about the unfair judgment over which children play “free range” the most, but her point should be that more people, if not all people should be encouraging it.
Great teachers often use what children already know to create scaffolds between knowledge and understanding. But what if there is nothing to scaffold from? Through the play of my childhood, I built the foundations of all the sciences and some math: biology, physics, geometry, geology, chemistry, even meteorology as I watched in the sky the evolution of the clouds, hoping I would get to swim or fish or play ball. Do today’s generation of children arrive in class with this foundation anymore? Do they know what shale or tadpoles or a robin’s egg even looks like?