Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Redeeming Play

Try typing "unstructured play" into your Google search engine and you will turn up an impressive list of magazine and journal articles, blog posts, and research studies all claiming that unsupervised, free-time is the key ingredient to our children's health and happiness. A recent Atlantic Monthly article by Hanna Rosin titled "The Overprotected Kid" highlighted a new style of playground in the UK where kids are free to start bonfires, roll down the hill in a barrel, and build ramshackle forts all with minimal adult supervision. Adults observe passively and only intervene in worst case scenarios or, one would hope, when things descend a little too far into a chapter from Lord of the Flies. The benefits of unplanned, unsupervised play range from increased creativity and confidence to better decision-making skills and greater emotional resilience. In these articles, parents are routinely encouraged to back off and let play work its magic.   

Allowing unsupervised play does not seem to require convincing among parents in Vietnam. Our alley is wider than most and has less motorbike traffic so it functions as central park for our neighborhood. Kids walk or ride their bikes here to play soccer or tag or hide-and-seek. Even four and five-year-olds have free run of the alleys. I've met a dozen or more children over the past weeks and only two moms (in passing when they came to call their kids home to eat). Instead of adult supervision, there seems to be some sort of age/size determined pecking order by which the older kids boss the others around and periodically thump the littler ones to prevent insurrection. Whichever child is biggest automatically assumes the role of chief and then relinquishes the title when someone bigger comes along.

Usually play starts out Norman Rockwell enough, but it often deteriorates. Caleb has been upset for weeks because he watched a group of boys kill a bird. Nathan regularly comes through the door indignant because kids pinched his cheeks. Recently the two of them came running up to me all excited because they met a boy who knew English. They dragged me to see and I was dismayed to discover that their friend's repertoire consisted of two unmentionable words and the accompanying hand gesture. Our boys had never heard this expression before and were quite impressed that their friend could shout it with such flare. I tried to convince them it wasn't really English.

A week ago, one little boy crashed his bike outside our front gate. He was brave about it, but pretty scraped up. I brought him in and patched him up as best I could. I gave him something to drink and sat with him in the kitchen. Another boy followed us in and must have wanted a little TLC himself because he started showing me his own injuries, a dime-sized burn on his chest from his dad's cigarette and bruises up and down his legs. I thought I must have misunderstood him, so I asked him to tell me again how he had been hurt. The boy got embarrassed and ran outside.

This is where we live. This is where our boys play. There are days when I want to lock the gate and cut power to the doorbell. I want to gather my boys and retreat to a place that is safe and ordered and clean. Oddly enough, the boys themselves prevent me from doing this. They insist on being out in the alley. They have persisted in getting to know a few of the other kids and consider them friends.

I was musing recently and realized that there can be merit to all of the things the boys are experiencing, but like all of life, play is tainted by sinfulness. Kids are broken, relationships are broken, play is broken. Redeeming play requires prayerful engagement as a parent not passivity. I may not plan activities for the rabble outside or monitor every interaction, but I need to be aware of what is happening and ready to respond to Caleb and Nathan when they want to know why the other boys are being cruel to an animal or shouting vulgarities and expletives. I need to intervene when my children are in over their heads. I need to exercise wisdom as a parent and an adult when my kids lack maturity and wisdom themselves.

I have been reading the book of Proverbs and realized that the creativity, confidence, problem-solving skills, and resilience we want for our children all fall under the umbrella of wisdom. Our alley has certainly become wisdom's classroom. In the past weeks, alley interactions have spawned conversations at home about valuing and protecting God's creatures, guarding our words, keeping our bodies safe and private, loving our enemies, and being thankful for the the difference grace makes in our lives when we try to follow Jesus. I find myself praying for wisdom and growing in wisdom as I help our boys learn to redeem play.

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