Friday, April 21, 2006


Kids on the loose in the 'hood

Silken Laumann is a Canadian Olympic medalist , national sport hero and, more importantly, mother to two kids, age six and eight. She's here in Ottawa promoting a new book called Child's Play: Rediscovering the Joy of Play in Our Families and Communities. One of her key messages caught me by surprise, coming from a former professional althlete: take your kids out of organized sports. [Edited to add: according to an e-mail I received from Silken's Active Kids, the Citizen actually attributed this idea incorrectly. The e-mail stated: "Silken is not suggesting that we pull our children out of organised sport. Silken is encouraging all of us to create more opportunites to allow our kids to play so they experience joy from movement and in time will want to pursue more a more organised sport."] She argues that kids need to face long stretches of unstructured time with no organized activities, when kids should be outside the house playing, riding their bikes and having fun moving their bodies for the sheer joy of it.

In theory, I love this idea. I wasn't the most athletic kid (in fact, it was a heady day that I wasn't the last one picked for a team) but I still have the most wonderful memories of riding my bike all over the neighbourhood by the time I was six or seven years old, and running in a big pack of neighbourhood kids. We played hockey in the street, skated on the frozen pond in the empty field, played tag and hide and seek and all sorts of those games. I even walked to school from the time I was in junior kindergarten, by myself.

The problem, of course, is that we're not in the 1970s anymore, Toto. It makes me so very sad to think that my boys won't have this kind of freedom to roam. On the weekend, we conceded two major milestones to Tristan's eventual freedom. We let him ride his bike (on the sidewalk, of course) all the way to the stop sign and back by himself. Total distance of about six driveways. And the first three times, I pretended to be busy in the garden but instead hunched behind the car and watched him the whole time.

Later in the weekend, he asked if he could stay out and play by himself while I went in to start dinner. It was the first time he was allowed to stay out in the front yard unsupervised, and when we heard the screech of car tires on the road a few minutes later, Beloved and I nearly died of fright - but the car was at the stop sign and Tristan was safely on his bike in the garage. My heart still constricts at the memory.

Silken Laumann's book, which I am about to request from the library and haven't yet read, provides 20 pages of information, resources and ideas on getting kids to be physically active without registering them for swimming, soccer, T-ball and hockey. She suggests parents organize "Play in the Park" evenings, where one or two parents supervise a whole group of children. Isn't this what parents in our parents' generation did instinctively? Now there's a 'not my kid, not my problem' mentality at the park, from what I've seen.

In an article in today's Citizen, Silken acknowledges that our culture of fear has led us to organize and structure our children's lives. She says, "It's about starting a dialogue, where people are asking, what are we doing with our kids? Could kids walk to school again? How can we get them playing in the parks and open spaces of our community again? We show people how."

I am 100% behind this idea, which even has its own Web site with a community action plan, an activity guide and a movement you can start where you live. I wholeheartedly believe in the importance of kids getting out and being physically active, but I have mixed feelings about organized sports. (I started to go on for a bit on my angst over organized sports, but I think I'll save that for a whole 'nother post.)

The weather has been so unbelievably gorgeous the past couple of weeks, and there isn't an evening we've stayed in the house. We go to the park, we go for a bike ride/wagon pull, we play in the driveway. The house is a disaster and I'm woefully behind on laundry, but when the sky is clear and the temperatures above freezing, I can't convince myself, let alone my preschoolers, to stay inside.

I think kids are hardwired to want to run and ride and play. So what happens? Do they become jaded to play as they age, or is it something we're doing that discourages it? Does all this rigourous scheduling of activities make kids lazy when someone isn't directing their energies? And then, of course, there's the whole issue of the kids being able to entertain themselves and think creatively without parental intervention, which I haven't even touched on but which is a huge concern of mine.

I'm interested in your thoughts on this one. My kids are just on the threshold of this kind of thing, taking tentative baby steps out of my yard and into the big world, and I'm full of thoughts on how the world should be, just like I was full of righteous ideas on handling fussy eaters and non-sleepers and tantrums in public -- before I had my own to deal with!

I've got all sorts of themes tangled together in here, but I'm interested (as always) in your thoughts. When do you let your kids play outside unsupervised? Do you / would you let them walk to school, or the corner store? At what age do you think they'd be ready for that? Is 'stranger danger' more frightening than obesity and heart disease and diabetes and the other worst-case outcomes from inactive living? Is it naive to think we can make enough of a difference in our communities to allow our kids the kind of freedom we enjoyed?