Has This Generation of Kids Forgotten How to Play?

Image Source: Suzanne Cowie
Image Source: Suzanne Jannese

It’s week 3 of the kids’ summer school holidays and I feel murderous. If I have to break up ONE more argument between my 9-year-old son and my 4-year-old daughter over our iPad, I may well run away with the circus.

My son is nothing short of addicted to some game called “Clash of the Clans,” while my daughter is obsessed with watching bizarre videos of people unwrapping Kinder surprise eggs (WHY? I have no idea). Not a day goes by without him screaming that it’s his turn, or else she screaming that he’s been on it too long. I have debated throwing out the darn thing, except I like to read the Sunday papers on it.

Just last week, UK kids’ TV show host Michaela Strachan said that today’s youngsters “don’t know what they’re supposed to do” when left to their own devices outdoors. Speaking to the Daily Mail, she called for the “re-wilding” of children who spend too much time playing with gadgets:

“Before we had all this technology, children would just be left outside to play and entertain themselves with their own imagination — they knew what to do. I think now an awful lot of children, when they’re told to go outside, go, ‘Okay, now what do I do?’ They don’t actually know what do to when they are out there. That’s not their fault. It’s because they live their lives behind a screen all day.”

I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately, we have what is best described as a “courtyard” garden and when my kids head out there, they kick a ball for about two minutes before it lands in the neighbors’ yard. They squirt a couple of water pistols until one of them gets squirted in the eye and cries. Then they bemoan that they have nothing to do. I feel eternal guilt that I haven’t provided them with a bigger garden, but at the same time, I’m not sure that even if I had one they would think of things to do in it.

Thinking back on my own childhood, I spent my summers leaving the house at first light to play with two boys who lived across the street. We’d make kites, run around a local athletic track, build dens or go-carts, climb trees, play soccer, and make daisy chains or rose “perfume.” We were outside — weather allowing — all day. We only came inside to eat or use the bathroom, and then we’d dart out again. At dusk we would beg to stay out until dark and then we would have a bath (to clean all the cuts we endured on our knees) and fall asleep exhausted. Our imaginations knew no bounds as we created game after game. One summer I played hopscotch every single day and taught myself (with the aid of a broom) how to roller-skate. I played tennis against the wall of my house until it got so dark I could no longer see the ball!

If I ever got bored, my mom would tell me to get outside and think of something. I always did. Even playing alone (I was an only child), I built rock gardens, planted seeds, collected frogspawn, set myself running targets with a thrilling new digital watch (that lit up in the dark!), and biked everywhere.

But today, my children are constantly looking to me to be entertained — they seem unable to do so alone, without the aid of a technical device of some sort. While I know it’s important that kids understand how to use computers and tablets, I also think that it’s important that kids today get bored and start using their imaginations to find ways of keeping entertained. I don’t want my kids to live unhealthy lives, sprawled in front of the TV or iPad, rather than getting fresh air, some physical activity, and using their creativity.

So with this in mind, I took my kids to the country this past weekend to visit with my best friend. She moved to a quaint converted barn, deep in the countryside, with a cute little stream running through the middle of her garden.

We fired up the BBQ, I covered my kids in 50 SPF, and sent them outside to see what would unfold. To my amazement, neither child asked for the iPad or my phone once. Instead, they fished in the tiny stream for hours, delighted to catch teeny tiny fish. They played with the garden hose and danced through the sprinklers. After a game of cricket (several balls lost in the stream), they played some tennis and then raced up and down the lawn. They were over-joyed when my friend’s cat caught a mouse and they helped release the little creature back into the wild fields. It was nothing short of a miracle and a total relief, as I had begun to think that they were incapable of being apart from a device for longer than 20 minutes.

As for me, I only checked my phone once. (Promise.) The rest of the time, the kid in me was back in full force, playing cricket and fishing alongside them. It may have taken over an hour to scrub the dirt from their nails that evening at bath time, but it was totally worth it. Turns out if you take the devices away, they (and we) DO still know how to play after all.

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