It seems that just when I start lamenting the loss of childhood in our fast-paced American society and I am ready to give in to the idea that it is forever altered, I see a glimmer of hope. I am fortunate to spend my days with twenty-six uniquely gifted preschoolers and kindergartners. When I observe them, listen to their conversations and watch them play, I am hopeful.
My most glorious memories of childhood involve PLAY, yes, unstructured, free, and remarkable PLAY. Most of these memories involve either my sister, Emily, or my early elementary best friend, Chad. For three blissful years, we lived at the end of a cul-de-sac in Raleigh, NC, with a large wooded area behind our house. I had a playhouse that my dad built, and Chad had a fort that, as I recall, he helped design and build with his dad. We spent our days out in our yards and the surrounding woods, trekking from one play structure to another. I remember feeling like the space to roam was never ending. I felt free and full of ideas…ideas that could be lived out in our play. We also explored. There was a creek in the woods behind our house, complete with snakes and vines. It was exciting and a little bit scary, but that was part of the appeal. My sister and I spent our entire childhoods creating imaginary scenarios and role playing. I spent very little time as Meredith, but I was often a mom or a radio announcer, a teacher or a playwright. I hope that children today feel that same sense of freedom, wonder, and power, but I am prone to wondering if they still do. Today’s children are schedule-driven and the constant threat of Amber alerts, injuries, and other dangers leave parents terrified for their children’s safety.
We can’t recreate the innocent days of my youth, but I hope that in the yard of our little school on the hill, we are able to create an environment where the children feel somewhat carefree and able to live out their imaginative dreams. This week, as usual, I noticed so many hopeful signs. I saw children carrying armloads of shovels and buckets across the playground with smiles on their faces…they were on a mission. I asked them what they were doing and they replied with great authority and confidence, “we are making stone soup”. Another group used a wagon, turned on it’s side, to make a lunch counter at their “restaurant”. They used sticks as carrots, balls of clay as strawberries, leaves for lettuce and dry sand for salt. I had spinach salad with strawberries the first time I visited. When I returned, the clay balls had become potatoes for a stew. I also had great fun playing with a group of “firefighters” who were diligently putting out fires all over the yard. They repeatedly acted out the same scene: running to their “fire truck”, driving to the fire, jumping out and running toward the flames with hoses brandished, then back to the truck to start again. Other children busily hauled their goods from place to place in wagons while I listened to a group practicing beats on their overturned buckets in preparation for a drum show. Happy laughter and the low hum of contentedness are sounds that reassure me that given the right environment, children can still find that joy that pervades my memories of childhood play.
To keep the hope alive, parents and teachers must fight to protect our children’s time. Twenty minutes of recess in elementary school is never going to be enough time for children to imagine and take ownership of their play. Over-structured school days and afternoons/evenings shuttling to activity after activity do not leave time for free play either. We need to give children our blessing to use their time to create, imagine, and rehearse what they learn through their play. Be a Protector of Childhood and share the hope!