Can Johnny Come Out And Play?


I remember coming home from school when I was a kid.  I threw my book bag on the floor, and I briefly recapped my day at school with my Mom while I ate a quick afternoon snack.  Then I rushed out the door to meet my friends somewhere in the neighborhood.

We played hockey in the cul-de-sac.  We raced our bicycles around the block.  Or we met in the woods for an imaginary game of war.  Our playtime was not structured by a coach, parent, or schedule.  Instead, we talked at school or on the bus ride home about plans for getting together as soon as we arrived home.

Where ever we ended up in and around the neighborhood, a parent wasn’t too far away to help us out if we found ourselves hurt or in trouble.  The other mothers in the community were empowered to reprimand us if necessary.  My parents were still my parents, but I was definitely raised by a village of other parents spread throughout the neighborhood.  And this is how it was for the kids in my neighborhood.

Fast forward twenty to thirty years and things have changed dramatically.  I am a parent of two teenagers, and they are growing up in a world drastically different from my own.  In today’s fast-paced American culture, either both parents are working, or children are being raised by single parents.

Our kids have schedules that match the busy demands of a society which tells us our children have to be star athletes, academic wizards, and well-rounded individuals.  No longer do kids have the freedom to experience unstructured play in and around their neighborhoods.  Instead, they are coached, taught, and directed by adults.  Each activity is structured in an effort to produce superhuman kids and to provide child-care while parents work (or recover from work).

And when kids aren’t busy in structured play, their iPads and other electronic devices become babysitters and places to escape the pressures of interacting with others.  Kids hardly know how to answer the phone or interact face-to-face anymore.

In the neighborhoods in my area, every garage door is controlled automatically from a button in the car.  People come home from a busy day of work.  They open their garage doors and drive in.  Before they get out of the car, the garage door is on its way down again.  When they aren’t busy running from one activity to another, families are closed in their homes with minimal interaction with their neighbors next door.

What impact is this having on our kids and on the future of human interaction?

The high-speed online world we live on is having an impact on the healthy rhythms of daily life.

Is there an easy solution to this?  I’m not so sure.  I am just as guilty as anyone else who has been captured by technology and the lure of making the great American dollar.  Perhaps, the solution lies in regularly examining our priorities and learning to say no to a few of the things that disrupt the types of interaction we were meant to have.

Why is unstructured play so important?

Unstructured play provides an opportunity for our kids to use and expand their imaginations.  It teaches them to resolve conflict themselves.  And it teaches them independence.

Unstructured play is enhanced when communities join together to encourage free play and less busy schedules.

Is it practical to re-inject unstructured play back into our society?  Probably not, but it is possible if families individually decide to resist the urge to schedule every single minute of our kids’ days.  Here are five practical ways to inject unstructured play back into your kids routines:

  1. Intentionally leave at least one afternoon or one night free on your calendar. Encourage your child to plan this time.
  2. Invite other kids over to your house to play with your child. Have a snack available (kids love food), and let the kids figure out what to do from there.
  3. Spend time in your neighborhood, outside your house. As the weather warms up, get outside and make yourself and your kids available to your neighbors.  At first, this may seem strange to your house-bound neighbors, but their curiosity will most likely eventually get the best of them as they emerge from their homes to the world outside.
  4. Talk to other parents in your neighborhood about unstructured play. This type of dialogue will invite others into your efforts.
  5. Encourage your kids to go outside. They will not die if you limit their technology time.  And a little fresh air will actually benefit them in the long run.

Do you think it’s important for our children to have time for unstructured play?  Why or why not?  What suggestions do you have for encouraging our kids to pursue unstructured play?

(My article, Can Johnny Come Out And Play?, originally appeared at The Good Men Project.)