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Monday, June 25, 2007

Children at glorious play

Planning, organizing doesn't leave much room for fun exploration

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

The music freed the children to dance.

Scores happily spun into freewheeling exhilaration -- twirling, jumping, somersaulting, cartwheeling, silly stepping and rolling about in the grass. Others were zooming in and out under the tall oaks, back where the adults sat, reserved, listening to the music of the County Sky Band. Among them, a few toes tapped out the beat.

The scene -- a live music concert in a suburban village green -- was of children in the throes of spontaneous play. Unplanned. Unscripted. Unrehearsed. They were toddlers, preschoolers and preadolescents, but none older. If you wanted to know when we lose our inhibitions, you had only to ask the age of the oldest frolicking child on the village green that pleasant evening last week.

The scene is repeated here, and elsewhere I'm sure, for weeks during the summer. Last week it was the music of Shirley King, daughter of famed blues singer B.B. King, that set the children dancing. And in the following weeks, it will be '50s, big band and more. The children don't care; they'll frolic to it all. They danced for an hour and a half, stopping only when parents decided "it's time to go," or, finally, when the concert ended. They were as inexhaustible as they were inspiring and comforting -- by showing that children still could be children.

How glad I was that children still could discover spontaneity. On their own. Without a "program" carefully tended by staff or volunteers. Without some Institute for Fostering Impulses in Childhood showing up and instructing the children. They instinctively knew what to do and how to do it.

My only fear, sitting there, listening and watching, was that some adult, well-meaning of course, would rise from his chair and go over to try to organize the children. "OK, you guys over here will twirl," he'd say, separating them into groups, "and the rest of you will whirl." No one, to my knowledge, came by to check if it was "quality play."

This is not a knock on the countless classes and organized activities that enrich the lives of millions of children. I grew up when and where there were none, and it would have been nice to have a few around. There are valuable things to learn in an organized setting: how to cooperate and how to compete, how to get along and how to stick up for yourself.

This, rather, is for the benefit of children who have no room for spontaneity in their lives; whose every waking moment is scheduled; who have no idea what unstructured play is; and whose constant companions are electronic gizmos or the playmates in a shared, organized activity.

Psychologist David Elkind, author of "The Hurried Child" and "The Power of Play," sticks up for those deprived children by lamenting the absence in their lives of self-initiated play. Elkind blames not a lack of imagination on the part of the children, but "parent angst" about preparing their children for, well, everything.

For some parents, self-guided childhood exploration can be a scary thing. For children, too. But it's part of growing up. It fosters creativity, as anyone whose mother berated him for being a "stick-in-the-mud" and sent him out to play knows. When we were growing up in the city, that meant finding something to do out back in the alley or deploying to the empty corner lot to play war in the remnants of the victory garden. Later in the suburbs, it meant finding something to do down by the creek or getting lost in one of the disappearing fields of tall corn. By today's standards, a lot of what we found to do would be considered illegal or -- worse -- "inappropriate." That's sad.

It also fosters independence, as in "figure it out for yourself." It fosters imagination and courage, as in creating heroic scenarios in which you, say, come to the rescue of (can I say it?) settlers surrounded by Geronimo's braves in war paint. It fosters what today would be called "negotiating skills," by learning to make and keep friends on your own and playing together without supervision. It fosters a sense of consequences, by taking dumb risks and figuring out how to extricate yourself from their results. Or getting stung for them.

It fosters separation from parents, and for some, that might be the scariest thing of all. It shouldn't be. It's the best way to grow up.

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