It’s a typical Saturday in February in Colorado. The temperature hit 60, erasing all evidence of a midweek snowstorm, and I have nudged my children out the back door after a restless morning of arguing and whining. The three-year-old squints against the bright light after leaving the dim comfort of his house cave. The seven-year-old shivers, despite wearing a warm hoodie and slippers and having the intense winter sun on his cheeks.
“I’m bored,” the big one says. The little one agrees. Their feet haven’t left the patio yet.
Gingerly, they step off. They navigate the grass like newly hatched chickadees, aimless and confused. They perch together on top of a pink-and-blue plastic picnic table. “Mommy, what should we do?” they ask.
“Play,” I answer. “You know, when I was your age, I played outside all day, every day—even in winter,” I add, conveniently forgetting countless hours of Atari and Saturday-morning-cartoon marathons.
They kick at their toys, climb the crab apple tree and jump down, and walk into the playhouse and then out.
“Can we go inside yet?”
Resigned, they poke at the dirt with sticks. In winter, the ground is cold and hard. The worms are hiding, so mud is out of the question. They lose interest and weave back toward the table.
I should take them to the science museum. The thought sneaks in before I can stop it. Or the zoo.
But I’m making a commitment this year to stop filling their hours, days and weekends with crafts, lessons and activities because, over the past few months, my children have forgotten how to play. I remember them spending hours last summer, splashing at our water table and digging for worms. But in the months since then, I can barely recall a day where we didn’t have pre-scheduled plans or the last time I tossed them into the backyard and told them to play.
As parents, we wax nostalgic about the good old days, back when close-knit neighbourhoods and endless free play reigned supreme. But free play was easy back then. Most of my friends were home after school and on the weekends. My best friend lived next door, and I remember endless hours exploring the backyards of our cul-de-sac. Scores of us wandered the streets, looking for a way to pass the time. Today, most kids in our neighbourhood aren’t around after school or on weekends. And no one seems to have free time to squander.
Like many parents, I’m burdened with guilt over my kids’ lack of freedom and neighbourhood adventures. In an effort to make it up to them, I schedule play dates across town. I sign them up for swimming lessons, music classes and preschool gym jammers at the local community centre. I take them to the zoo, science museums, water parks and skating rinks. Every moment of every day, their agendas are filled with activities that, though often kid-friendly, are scheduled by grown-ups.
When they do have free time, they forget what to do with it.
It’s easy to blame outside forces—and not our own parenting choices—for siphoning away our kids’ playtime. We lament that there aren’t enough neighbours with kids. Or that video games are sapping their creativity and keeping them indoors for too many hours. Or that it’s not safe, in this modern world, to let our children run off to the park without us.
Yet, the beauty of the “good old days” wasn’t just that we had kids in the neighbourhood or were allowed to play outside unsupervised; the best part was that we made our own fun. We chose our own activities. Going to the zoo, the science museum or even McDonald’s was a once-a-year thing—if at all. It was expensive and unnecessary. Instead, we figured out stuff to do. And we had to do it without the help of grown-ups—and sometimes even without friends on days when we were stuck with just our siblings.
It wasn’t all perfect. My brother and I wasted many sunny Saturdays in front of brain-rotting cartoons, eating Lucky Charms straight from the box and washing them down with Coke from a can. But we also rolled down grassy hills in inner tubes that we pulled out of the basement. We paddled canoes and splashed in lakes. We spent entire afternoons on the park swings, trying to kick our shoes over the high fences of the tennis courts. Sometimes we crashed our inner tubes into rocks or capsized our canoes or lost our shoes, but it didn’t matter. We were leaders of our own lives. We imagined, we created, we investigated.
This ability to control our own hours and days was what made us turn off the television. We didn’t need someone to throw us out in the backyard because we already knew what kind of wonders we could build outside.
On this warm Saturday in February, my kids have forgotten how to play, but it’s never too late to relearn. I see it the moment it begins. My oldest stares off into space, thinking while still perched on the plastic table. “Hey, let’s make flags,” he says to the youngest, who will do almost anything his big brother suggests, “and pretend we’re doing the bike race game.”
“Yes!” the little one yells.
For the next two hours, they are in their own imaginary world. They find paper, tape, scissors and crayons. They tape flags all over the yard—on the table, the slide, the playhouse, the tree—and retrieve them on imaginary bikes. The big one is fake pedalling, and the little one is pretending to be a dog, yipping after him and yanking down flags.
I know they are just imitating a game they played on the Wii earlier that morning, but that doesn’t bother me. By bringing it outside, they’ve reinvented it. They are creating and running and laughing. They have taken control.
When they finally flop on the grass, they are rosy-cheeked and happy.
“Phew, I’m tired. Wanna go in?” the big one asks the little one. The little one nods and steamrolls his brother. They wrestle for a bit, then get up and head for the door.
They don’t ask me for permission. If they had asked, I would have acquiesced. The sun is lurching toward the mountains. It will be cold soon.
They trudge inside, satisfied. They might not understand the rich benefits of fresh air and dirt under their feet, but by experiencing it, I know they will want more. Most importantly, they have shaped their own day and are happier because of it.
Finally, they turn back to me, where I’m lounging on a deck chair. They’ve barely noticed me since they started the game.
“Mommy, are you coming?” I am an afterthought now—they are making their own way.
This article was originally published online in March 2019.