In Praise of Play: The Kids Are Alright

Just so you know, play is in. As in trending. As in the new black.

I tend to follow these kinds of things, and I’ve noticed of late that a number of scholarly and not-so-scholarly periodicals and publications have taken up the topic of “play.”

TheAtlanticCoverThe Atlantic ran a truly fascinating story on an emerging trend in playgrounds, whereby kids are all but unsupervised amidst an assortment of things that could theoretically be harmful. Of course, the setting for the story is Great Britain, and not here in the homeland of helicopter parenting. But the upshot of the piece was that, maybe…just maybe, kids might be better off in the long run if left to their own devices more often.

After reading the article, I found myself chuckling at the memory of a 13-year-old me, riding my bike along a state highway with no paved shoulder to speak of, and carrying a full set of golf clubs on my back. That’s the kind of thing you did back in the dark ages if you wanted to go play with your friends. Sometimes the assortment of sporting goods you brought along just happened to be a little larger than at others.

If that were to happen today, a SWAT team of social services folks would’ve descended first upon me, and then upon my parents. Lawyers would jostle for position to bring suit against the manufacturer of both my bike and my golf clubs for negligently allowing this situation to occur. There would’ve been consequences—not the least of which would’ve entailed confinement to my house, leaving me with nothing to do but watch endless reruns of Gilligan’s Island all afternoon. Safely, of course.

But I digress…

Maybe it’s just my imagination, but it certainly seems that since that article appeared, a slew of similarly-themed reports have cropped up. NPR even did an entire week-long series on play, introducing its audience to something called the National Institute for Play, whose website’s Home page displays the following quote: “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” Apparently that was originally uttered by some New Age-y guy named Plato.

Plato (far right) testing out play vs. conversation theory

Rare archival photo of Plato (far right) testing out play vs. conversation theory

The common theme of all this banter is centered around the notion that kids inherently know more about reaping the rewards of play than do adults, who’ve been on a years-long crusade to replace random goofing around with scheduled, structured activities conducted while encased in bubble-wrap. It’s said that perhaps we’re witnessing a return pendulum swing of public opinion, as Millennials come to realize that their own childhoods were way too programmed, and set about to make sure that their kids have some more latitude in the play department. Makes sense to me.

Somewhat related to the above is a movement afoot in the country to “do something” about childhood obesity. The most visible of these efforts is the “Let’s Move” initiative led by First Lady Michelle Obama, but the central goal of getting kids up and about is embodied in a tidal wave of similar programs that have been launched in the past few years.

The reason that all of this is of specific interest to me can be summed up in two simple mathematical theorems:

#1)  Play + Move = Recreation

#2)  Recreation + Games = Sports

In a nutshell, the more that people engage in sports, the more I’ll have to write about. Which, in turn, diminishes the odds of me finding myself relegated to a life of dereliction on the streets. It’s a big win/win, wouldn’t you say?

There is, however, one small fly in the ointment. 

This “No Child Left (On His Or Her) Behind” movement is concentrated, not coincidentally it seems, on youngsters. And trust me on this: reporting and opining exclusively about kids playing sports can get to be…well, boring. There, I said it. Hopefully, Mo’ne Davis will find it in her heart to forgive me.

But there’s something much more important at stake here than the presence or absence of boredom in my life. While childhood inactivity is certainly in need of attention, it seems to me that it’s at least as important to our country that adults increase their pace of play, so to speak. Unfortunately, however, there is very little today that’s written or said about adults at play—well, little that’s G-rated, anyway. Unless, that is, the adults in question are members of the microscopically small group of people that get paid gobs of money to play the most visible of spectator sports; to be “sportainers,” if you will.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a fan of pro sports, and I’ve certainly logged an impressive number of hours on various couches, bar stools, and bleacher seats in my time. But that’s something altogether different then what we’re talking about now. Because at the end of the day, if watching is the only thing we relate to when we hear the word “Sports,” then the only thing that we as a society have gained is…to have been entertained for a while.

Compare that to the benefits of playing sports: physical health and well-being well into our twilight years; mental sharpness, both now and for much more of our lives; and perhaps most importantly, a sense of community—the ongoing feeling of belonging to a group of people with whom you share a passion that you can act upon together.

Here’s the good news. Although you may not hear a lot about Americans at play just for the sake of playing, it doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to be said. It just hasn’t been done that much. But that’s about to change.

To be continued…

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