Can you come out to play?

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Knock knock on the door.

I open and a pretty, smiley face framed by pig tails appears. "Can your boys come out to play?", she asks as her huge eyes glimmer up at me.

"Oh sure sweetie" I tell her as I admire her cute polka dot skirt and her rainbow stockings. "Boys, the little girl across the street is here to play!", I call cheerfully as I wave and smile to the little girl’s mom who is watching from her front door. She goes back inside with a satisfied look on her face.

I hear the excited stomping and running feet of my three oldest boys come closer to the front door.  They throw on their shoes and all of the children run outside into the backyard and head straight for the best climbing tree.  Oh, it is a perfectly sunny Spring day to play outside.  The air is sweet with warmed up tree sap and freshly turned over soil under the shoes of frolicking children. 

“Let’s play tag… tree is base!” one child calls.  I watch as they run and giggle.  It is like a sea of smiles in my backyard and I can feel the happiness wash over me.

 

{{{Record scratch}}}…  Here is what really happened:

 

Knock knock on the door.

The cold green-gray door stares back at us in silence.  “Why can’t they come out to play?”, my little four year old son asks.  He looks up at me and his eyes are wet with the starting of tears.  The corners of his mouth are turned down.  His shoulders sagging.

“Oh sweetie, I don’t know”, I tell him as we slowly walk back to our house across the street for the third time that afternoon. “You know, maybe they have Karate practice today.  Maybe they will be home tomorrow.”

“No, they had Karate practice yesterday.” his voice cracks into real tears now.  I hear his shoes shuffle slowly in the gravel in their driveway.  As we approach our house, I see my other three boys peering out the window at us with anticipation of news.  I shake my head slowly and shrug my shoulders with my hands up.  They all frown and turn and walk away from the window.

Each of my sons eventually chooses something to do like play Legos, go out and dig in the sand, or practice basketball on the backyard court.  A dark cloud appears in the sky and blocks out the sun’s rays and I hear the slow pounding of a basketball on pavement.  It is like my heavy heart; disappointed for my sons.

Disappointment turns to frustration and then to anger.  Where the hell are all of the neighborhood kids?  We moved to this house, this block, this area in small-town USA, to have the laid-back life with backyard games of kick the frickin’ can!  There are kids living in every other house on our block.  There are even white picket fences. 

 

Where did all of the kids go?

 

I will tell you where they went.  They went to soccer practice, Karate, piano lessons, gymnastics, French lessons, swimming, and dance classes.  Yeah, I get why parents send their kids to these structured activities several times a week.  We do it too (well, just one class on Friday).  I don’t want my boys to be left out…

We all know that we don’t want our kids to grow up and say, “I could have been a world famous baseball player but my parents didn’t believe in me enough to sign me up…. bla, bla, bla”  How devastating would that be for your child’s dreams to be squashed by you, the bad parent?

There are many changes that have taken place since the time I was a child.  A national time diary survey by the University of Michigan has documented these changes over 16 years. During this time, children ages three to twelve saw a major decline in free time.  Here are some of those changes:

• 12 fewer hours per week in free time
• A 25% drop in play activities
• A decrease of 50% in unstructured outdoor activities DSC02768

Yeah, children ages THREE TO TWELVE are being so over structured that our neighborhood streets are empty. Bicycles are not being ridden.  Trees are left fort-less and unclimbed.  Grass is not tickling nearly enough toes.  We don’t have enough children hiding for those that are seeking to find them.

I would love to see the results of a 16 year study on children ages three to twelve to see if they are becoming more talented and happy.  Do they have more friends?  Are they at peace with themselves and do they feel good about their family lives?  Are they smarter and do they have more successes than previous generations who had 50% more unstructured outdoor time?

Everywhere I look I see studies and proofs that, in fact, American youth are systematically getting stupider.  In the past few years we have been blaming our educational system, which happens to be “in charge” of our children’s intelligence, right?  Wrong.

How about we look at simple Grace & Courtesy in our country?  Learning how to make a friend.  How to invite others over into our over-guarded homes to play.  How to serve and trust one another.  How to ask for friendship.  All of this is how we build communities.  As far as I can tell, building communities is the key to intelligence in human beings, and to our spiritual paths of understanding one another; the key to REAL talent, intelligence, innovation, and learning.

Now it is time for me to step off of my box-O-soap and march into the neighborhood streets with my children and knock on the doors of my neighbors with a basket of cookies and ask, “Can your kids come out to play?”

Who’s with me!

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