A couple weeks ago, my 10-year-old son, Tristan, and I built a Cub Scouts derby car. He wanted to paint it, so my wife got him two colors of spray paint. He went in the backyard unattended, and when he came back 30 minutes later, the cans were empty, half his leg was green, and he enthusiastically asked if we hand any more paint.
I checked out back moments later to find that he’d painted our lawn like a soccer field. He’d also painted several sticks, some cardboard, and our peach tree. Oh…and the derby car. He painted that too. This was, hands down, the most fun he’d had without an iPad in a very long time.
In so many ways, it reminded me of my own childhood in central Utah. I was raised next to my grandfather’s beef farm, and most of my childhood was free-range. I wandered in and out of barns and walked along fields with almost no parental supervision. Sure, I had toys. But none of them were as cool as the old fencing material and broken-down farm equipment that rested on Grandpa’s property.
But that was the ’80s. Letting my 10-year-old wander free like I did is, more or less, seen as neglect nowadays.
However, I learned a lot from finding random junk on my grandfather’s farm, assembling it into this or that, and giving it a name. I used my imagination. I wasn’t dependent on a screen or adults to entertain me.
But my children don’t have access to that sort of exploration. We live in the suburbs of a rural town. Our yard is small, and we don’t have all that much fun junk lying around. My children also have the burden of a million distractions.
I suppose the reason I was so surprised by the fact that my son had so much fun with that spray paint is because, before that moment, I assumed he’d be more likely to play a video game of a kid painting things in the backyard or perhaps watch a YouTube video of someone doing it than to actually go paint something himself in the backyard. Many parents in 2016 have this same problem — there seems to be so much standing between children and exploration.
All of this has created an surge in adventure playgrounds. These are playgrounds that more or less look like actual junkyards, where children are given the opportunity to build and destroy, to use tools with little supervision, and most importantly, to play without parental supervision.
That’s right. Parents aren’t allowed.
Well, perhaps I should take that back. Parents are allowed to watch from a distance. But they can’t interfere.
CBS News ran a profile recently on play:groundNYC located on Governors Island. There, “children are given a free space to play without any management, mediation or overprotection from parents. The nonprofit includes ‘playworkers,’ the staff at an adventure playground that act like lifeguards, watching for dangerous hazards without interfering with activity.”
Parents are granted a fenced-off place to sit and watch, from a distance, where a handwritten sign reads, “Adults sit back and relax.”
Play:groundNYC is full of old tires, wood fencing, old boats, cable spools, hammers and other tools, and a million other knick-knacks. Looking at pictures of the place, it could easily be mistaken for a junkyard run by children. However, this sort of free play has some serious advantages to children’s development.
And the kids absolutely love it.
Roger Hart, professor of environmental psychology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York told CBS that “so much that’s positive in terms of intellectual development, social development, emotional development, physical development is best understood when understanding play. Play is a great indicator of health. … It’s where children create their world and learn to know themselves. Destructive and constructive play is a critical part in developing crucial motor and mental skills. However, conventional playgrounds contain ‘fixed equipment’ which leaves little to be built, created or destroyed by children.”
So, what does this mean to parents?
It all reminds me of when I bought my son that really expensive light-up, noisemaking toy when he was a toddler, only to find out that he’d rather play with the box. There is something to be said about being a child and playing with junk. About letting our children have some freedom to explore. About letting them go into the backyard with some spray paint, leaving them alone, and seeing what happens. This sort of play grants children the opportunity to build and destroy, to use their imaginations in ways that once were the norm but now have been removed in the name of safety and efficiency.
It means taking our hands off the wheel for a bit, even if it’s a bit scary, and allowing our children to get out there, scuff a knee, get some splinters, and get good and dirty. There is a lot of benefit to that kind of play, obviously. And if that means driving our children to a junkyard playground, well, that might be the best way to get them to unplug and go for it.
Or in my case, it might mean trying to figure out how to get spray paint off a peach tree and waiting for the lawn to outgrow its new soccer field makeover.
I know this sort of play can seem scary to a 2017 parent, or at least it does to me. It feels like you are failing if you don’t engage with them every moment to ensure their safety and happiness. But there is a ton of value in unsupervised play. There is a lot to be gained from getting hurt, picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and playing some more.
I don’t know what are the long-term impacts of over-supervising your children. I’m not a psychologist. But what I do know after learning about junkyard play is that children can benefit in numerous ways from less supervision, fewer toys and distractions, and more exposure to old junk.