I was reading the headlines on the front page of my web browser and they were alternating between tragedy, calamity and sadness to just plain goofiness. The scrolling headlines covered the gamut from the downed plane in the Ukraine to the fires in Washington to the death of James Garner (one of the all time greats) to pets that live better than most people. Usually the headlines are either the ones that make you cringe because it is a reminder of how unstable this world truly is, or they make you cringe because you realize how unstable so many people in the world truly are.
But there was a headline today that that really made me smile. It was “George H.W. Bush’s Big Year”. Before there is any descent into politics, the story actually had nothing to do with political beliefs, ideology, or any mention of red versus blue. Instead, it was a story about him skydiving for his 85th birthday. It was a story about how a man-- who spends much of his time in a wheelchair-- jumped from a plane tethered to an instructor, and completed a promise he had made to celebrate this birthday with one more jump. That is a good story. That story made me smile.
Why would the story of an 85-year-old man jumping from a plane to mark his ongoing time on earth make me smile? Because it was a great story about a man being a man. It was a great story about a man doing something that might seem a little crazy, it might seem dangerous, and it might even seem to be not so smart. But he did it. He said he was going to do it and he did it. He flew. He jumped. He landed. This man was a president so he did many headline-worthy things, but I think this is my favorite. He wasn’t scared. He didn’t let his health stop him. He just did it because he said he would and because he wanted to. That’s a cool story.
Reading the story of the jump made me think back to my days as a young boy. It was so much fun to jump and run and play. My friends and I would chase each other playing full contact tag, and then we would throw the football in the air and whoever caught it was dog-piled. We would play hide and seek at night hiding on rooftops and up in trees. I am not saying any of this was smart, but we were boys being boys and we had fun. We never broke any laws, other than the laws of common sense, but we had fun.
I sometimes worry that the fun of being a kid is being tempered, and even dampened, by our efforts to make everything so safe that we shut out adventure and play. Play is one of the best tools a child has to learn from. Boys need to rough house and tackle and throw things and be boys. Yes, most girls like to dress up and play with dolls, but a lot of girls like to run and play and even rough house a little. Kids like to be kids, and they need to be kids-- and kids need to play.
You might think that it is strange that I would write about something as simple as playing, but developmentally, playing is crucial. The process of imagination coupled with physical interaction, coupled with the necessary socialization for play, makes it an invaluable teacher. Play lets kids create boundaries of social hierarchy and responsibilities within the context of their imagination. It lets them create social structures for interactions, communications, and purpose. What might seem like random play to an adult is actually a world that a child is constructing to fit his or her view within that moment.
This leads me to my next point: we do need to be guardians of our kids’ safety, but we can’t put bumper-guards on their lives. We can’t sterilize our kids’ world nor can we remove everything that might be dangerous. We can and should put kiddy locks on the pantry with the cleaners, and we should teach them to wash before eating or after they sneeze. We should tell them to stay off the roof (an admonition I ignored as a kid). But kids need to go outside; they need to run, they need to get dirty and they need to play.
Moms and Dads, no one want to see their kids get hurt. But sometimes kids need to fall and scrape their knee. Sometimes kids need to step on a sticker. Sometimes kids need to get a bloody lip running and playing. Life will put stickers and stumbling block and even pain in their way. Let them begin learning how to cope with these things while in play and while they are masters of their imagination so that they can begin learning how to deal with and overcome these things.
Now for a really important point-- video games can teach great dexterity and problem solving. I happen to like a lot of video games and think there is some real benefit to many of them. However, video games are neither a replacement nor even a good surrogate for real playing. Real playing requires imagination and personal interaction and communication. Real playing requires physical exertion and mental investment. It isn’t playing within a virtual world; it is creating an imaginary world. My kids play video games as a reward, but we make sure they have had time outside and with friends and with a book and even alone time. The more time they spend exploring with their imagination the more questions they will develop, and the more they will learn to love to explore. Even silly little kid’s games are first steps towards feeding an imagination that will be a key component to later learning.
So, why am I talking about playing? Because playing, real playing, is a young child’s best opportunity to unlock and grow their imagination. Playing imagination games makes little ones think, problem solve and construct realities. Even when these realities are goofy, they are theirs. And that matters.
Kids who have outgrown imagination games need play in order to develop and learn social constructs. Both organized and unorganized sports and arts, and other events that are defined as “fun”, are actually great tools for learning social structure and context. They are great mechanisms for building confidence when excelling and teaching perseverance when failing. They are great avenues for learning how to be a part of a team and how to be accountable individually.
For our oldest of kids, those who are preparing for adulthood, they still need their imagination. Kids are never too old to play. Whether playing sand volleyball with friends or paintball with buddies, kids need to play. They need to cut loose, laugh and to exert themselves and to have fun. They need to try to win, and try and lose, and to learn how to be gracious in both instances.
Finally, we adults need to play as well. We need to remember how to do things that aren’t always life and death or bills and obligations. I play badminton with my kids all the time, and even though none of us are very good, we always laugh. In fact, learning to laugh at others and have others laugh at you-- and then laughing with them-- has been a great lesson that driveway badminton has taught us all.
Summer is quickly winding down. A lot of schools are counting down the weeks, not the months, until school begins. Give yourself and your kids a great gift for the rest of the summer. Make time for playing. Make and then take time to play with them. Laugh and run and win and lose, and do it together. Play imagination games with little ones and yard and board games with older ones. Just let them play. It might just be the best lesson your kids’ learn this summer.