Our Kids Need Some Serious Playtime

by Elizabeth Broadbent
ArtMarie / iStock

My sons circled the tiny pond, nets in hand, feet sliding on rocks. They were here for one thing, and one thing only: tadpoles. This little puddle of a pond had the best public tadpoling in town. My 6-year-old stopped and looked. He cocked his head, as if he could hear the tiny amphibians. Then whoosh went his net, and squelch it came up.

“I got some!” Blaise yelled. “I got one-two-three-four! Come see!” He ran his net over the rocks and across the pond. As he thrust it at me, I saw four little black dots wiggling in its mesh. “Make sure you let them go soon,” I said. “Remember, they can’t breathe.”

He caught more, and more. Usually we bring a container to keep them in, but not today. Today was strictly catch-and-release. My 4-year-old caught some. Even my 2-year-old, flailing with his net, caught three tadpoles. I mostly ignored the kids, other than to ooh and aah over their amphibian catches. Blaise caught a froglet with legs and a tail, and one of them caught a frog. They passed it around. I was on a conference call and didn’t realize it until they shoved it in my face, belly pale and legs splayed.

“Oh! Oh! Oh, yeah, that’s a frog. You caught a frog. Lovely.” To my panicked knowledge, it was a bullfrog, stretched long in my son’s hand. “Now, why don’t you go release it? Go put it in the pond. OK? OK. Now get it away from me.”

Science — that’s what a school curriculum would say we were doing, but I’d say we were really just messing around. Sure, the kids learned a little about frogs and tadpoles. But mostly they’d had fun in that quintessential childhood pastime: catching tadpoles. Kids need this. We’ve taken it out of their lives — the dirt and the mess and the water — and replaced it with league soccer. In that, we’ve lost something vital about childhood: play.

After the frog debacle, we headed to another part of the park, which offered low, clear wading above a rock dam. I dipped my toes in. The dog got up to his knees, decided it wasn’t his thing, and sat on the bank with me. But the kids…the kids loved it. They waded as deep as they could get (thigh-high on my 6-year-old). They dug in the sandy bottom and looked for rocks. Blaise climbed on the only rock above the waterline and found a snail, producing both excitement and terror — my husband always emphasizes that snails carry icky parasites.

But the snail didn’t stop them from wading upstream under the birches and pretending to dig for dinosaur bones in the bank. When we left, they were covered in mud to their knees, pants soaked up to their crotches. I took their shorts off before I snapped them into their seats, mostly so they wouldn’t muddy up the car. I figured that’s what a good mom does.

We let our kids get down and dirty in other ways. My husband has an obsession with carnivorous plants, which he’s passed on to my sons. They pour rainwater into their Venus flytraps and fetch flies for their pitcher plants. Inevitably, when they go outside to take care of the plants, it goes like this: They pour water. It’s too tempting not to pour water on each other. They bring their sprayers out. The hose comes on, mysteriously, since Blaise claims he has no idea how to make it work. Soon they’re all spraying each other, from head to toe, forming alliances, breaking alliances, every-man-for-himselfing it. I sit on the porch and tell them not to get water near me under penalty of dire, toy-taking related consequences.

They come inside through the laundry room. I strip them — shoes, shirts, shorts, undies. Because they’ve been knocking around and running through plant matter, they’re covered in little sticks and black specks and leaf pieces. I march them straight to the tub, where they splash too much and have to get out. Afterwards, I have to clean the tub.

So many have made themselves so overscheduled. Do kids do this on regular basis, not once every month, but once every other day? How many kids have the chance to play, to scream, to ruin the bathroom once again and get yelled at to throw their clothes straight in the washer? We did it all the time as children. Do overstressed parents, overscheduled kids, and overtired families keep tadpole hunting and wading from happening? What are those children missing that we had? What creeks lie unexplored? What mud puddles lie still?

This weekend, find the place in town to go for tadpoles. Arm your kids with nets. Take a blanket and sit under a tree. You’ll be surprised how much your kids love it. Two and a half hours later, and my kids still whine about leaving. You’re in for an afternoon. You’re in for some serious play.