The Necessity of Play

Children at Play on the Street by U.S. Department of Energy is licensed under CC-CC0 1.0

If I had to name the one thing that I like most about my neighborhood it would be seeing the children who live near me playing outside. Unless it is raining or during the school day my cul de sac is filled with the vibrant sounds of laughter and pure joy. It never ceases to delight me when I see the youngsters riding their bikes or running with unadulterated glee. They are a creative crew that invents all sorts of games. Sometimes I can even hear the stories and jokes that they tell each other. They create a joyful sound that keeps a big grin on my face. 

As a teacher I value the significance of formal education, but I also know how important unplanned free time is for children. Those are the moments when they are the most inventive. When left to their own resources young people find fascinating ways of working together to have fun. It’s essential that adults step aside now and then to allow their young ones the glorious opportunity of being creative.

My own youth was filled with nonstop activity after school and during the summer. Very little that I did was orchestrated by the adults in my world. Mine was a glorious kid fest in which we we created a world that would have been the envy of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. As with my present neighborhood there was a moveable feast of activity that might involve teams of kids or one on one interactions. Shoes were optional and most chose to bare their feet unless it was very cold.

We liked games that we played on the front lawns or in the street. They were often rough and tumble and quite competitive. Somehow nobody thought to make different rules for girls and boys. Everyone was equal on the neighborhood playing field and had to toughen up or lose. By some miracle their were few injuries associated with our antics. Only once did an accident turn serious. That was the time when my brother encountered a large shard of broken class as he raced across the high grass in one of our contests. The hidden weapon sliced through a tendon on his foot and he went down like a hero, barely whimpering in spite of the pain. A quick trip to our family doctor’s office mended his wound and made him a bit of a legend of bravery on our block. 

We did outrageous things on our bicycles. Almost everyone knew how to peddle quickly and then let go of the handle bars. Some of us perfected the art of standing on the seat while the bike propelled forward. We had scabs on our knees to prove our valor and the efforts that we had made to be warriors of the road. Some of us used our roller-skates in Olympic fashion as well, learning how to move in a backward motion and jumping over homemade ramps.

We built forts and planned shows. We had our own hand printed and illustrated neighborhood newspaper. We wrote songs and created outrageous stories that were so well crafted that we almost believed their fiction. We did woodturning with a magnifying glass and looked at water from the street on someone’s Christmas gift microscope. 

The girls sometimes took a break from the antics to play with our dolls. We crafted furniture from shoe boxes and milk cartons that we painted or covered with scraps of cloth. We named our tiny images of humans and created biographies for them. Our imaginations soared as we spoke of the future of our Barbies and baby dolls. They would move to New York City to find exciting jobs or travel to California to live along the coast. They would be writers, performers, lawyers, or adventurers. 

Now and again I managed to convince some of the kids on my block to play school with me. I had a cardboard box filled with paper and pencils and little books that I had written. I would teach a concept and then give my students work to complete. At the end of the session I gave each one a grade on my handmade report cards. I was always generous in my praise so that they would want to return for more at a later date.

The best of the times were spent exploring the woods near the bayou that meandered through our neighborhood. There we would encounter children from other streets. We enjoyed being together in our little haven that seemed to be far away from the structured world of adults. Inside that tangle of trees and underbrush we might encounter snakes or squirrels and lots of crawly creatures. We learned the importance of proper shoes and clothing on our make believe safaris. We learned early on not to taunt the creatures or bear the consequences of doing so. We whispered stories of the girl bitten by a rabid squirrel or the boy who invoked the wrath of a snake. 

We kids created our own world just as the children in my present neighborhood seem to do. Everyone was equal and respected. If there were differences between us we did not seem to notice them. We were wild and tame all at once, free ranging children learning about the world around us on our own. We gleaned as much from each other as we did in the formal arena of school. We enjoyed the freedom of our youth to the max and it was glorious. Play is a necessary part of growing up. We mastered that aspect of life quite well and the children in my neighborhood appear to be well on their way to earning their own degrees in the art and science of play as well.


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