A dozen scruffy kids, all covered in dirt, tramp through the neighbourhood. Aged 4 - 12, both girls and boys, no adult in sight, they are on a mission. Carrying long pieces of tree bark, branches, some crooked sticks, they have one thing on their minds - to venture into the forest and build a teepee (or maybe even a wooden hut) - it all depends on what the forest can offer.
Back in the day, we all shared moments like these, or similar ones. In fact, until recently such experiences defined what childhood is all about - a casual meet-up with your buddies that could turn into anything at any given moment. Just hang out, or suddenly get inspired by a spark of something out there and let your instincts kick in. No adult supervision, not much sense of time, guided only by imagination and group dynamics, with all options at hand (or foot) :)
The author Mike Lanza had his own version of these memories in mind as he was looking for a new home after the birth of his first son. He looked for places where kids were playing ball outside, running around, hanging out, maybe some trampolines with kids’ laughter nearby and, if possible, no parents around.
But he found no traces of childhood - if there were kids here, they were locked away behind gates and high fences. Trying to imagine his future home in such areas, Lanza wondered how and why kids roaming the streets had become such a rare sight, and more than that, he tried to figure out a way to change it.
In his book Playborhood (play+neighbourhood) he manifested his vision - as a kid, your neighbourhood should offer you the space to wander freely and allow you to interact with other kids. To play. Simply play. No curfew, no parenting, just hang out with friends and let nature take its course.
According to Lanza, play involves all the social skills a kid must acquire while growing up - believing in yourself, learning to interact with others, being part of a group, self motivation, self confidence, handling challenges, experiencing success but more importantly dealing with failures...
He continues to assert that we can't make this happen simply by taking away kids’ smartphones or picking them up early from school to try to give them more free time. No, these days, says Lanza, the concept of childhood is being challenged by all aspects of a kid’s life, and any attempt to reinstate that concept requires nothing short of a cultural revolution.
Here are some of his ideas that are easily implemented with potentially life-changing results:
- Be on the frontline. Whether you live in a house or an apartment, always try to show yourself: playing, talking or - better yet - playing the guitar outside your home: Create a sense of some action going on. This will signal to those around you that you’re ready for possible interaction. And interaction brings more interaction.
As people and especially as kids, we want to be involved, to be in on that thing. So be that thing.
- Away with picket fences; they create physical barriers.
If there are no fences, kids will feel more welcome, and it gives them permission to gather spontaneously around any kind of attraction. They need to be able to see that trampoline, sandbox, swing and so on.
- Make child-friendly architecture. For example Lanza smoothed out his garage driveway, to allow kids to go wild there with skateboards and ride-on cars.
- Initiate reasons for children (and their parents) to gather, whether a barbecue, a treasure hunt, or simply a spontaneous meet-up without an actual reason, other than getting together.
- Find a local green patch and have all the neighbourhood kids gather there with one "rotating parent" keeping an eye from afar and providing some bare necessities, if needed. And only that.
- Patience: Always be aware that change takes time and requires adults as well as kids to leave their comfort zone, both physically and mentally.
But having the options laid out in front of you is step one. What happens next will be determined by how persistent we as parents are about making a change in our kids’ lives.
It doesn't have to be a dramatic change. Even something as simple as an outside swing can have a profound impact on one's childhood memories.
The question “Why should we bother?” springs to mind.
Put simply: because childhood matters.
Or in Lanza's words :
"I was not terrified that he would have an inferior education or live in an insecure world. I was terrified that he would not have a happy childhood. "
Run Wild (with some help) :)
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