“Too many conscientious mothers and fathers think parenting is all about homework, car pools, and town soccer, and are not experiencing much joy with their families. Larry Cohen encourages parents to ‘lose their dignity’ in order ‘to find their child.’ You will find that you can be closer to your children and can enjoy them more.” After reflecting on this, “I immediately wanted to go wrestle with my kids — no tickling — and let them win.” — Michael Thompson, Ph.D.

The days of unstructured, unsupervised play are imprinted on my memory. Spontaneous games of Capture the Flag, hide-&-seek, kick ball or softball were an integral part of my childhood. Neighborhood children of varying ages would race home from school to meet in someone’s backyard or the field. We were truly the lucky ones: loads of land on which to roam — without any parents overseeing or judging our interactions. Our entire street offered what seemed like an endless back field that stretched into the woods beyond the stone walls, open to exploration. No rules, no pressure, just unbridled play. “Let’s climb the cherry tree!” or “We should build a fort” or “Who wants to play blind tag?”... the collective imagination of children was limitless, seamlessly transitioning from one game or project to the next. We were free spirits. It was only when we were summoned home for dinner or bedtime that we abandoned our gang. This was the kind of play many children rarely experience today….

We quickly learned team-building and conflict resolution without adult direction. With no parental “management,” we independently worked out our differences pretty successfully. As our collective energy grew, we might start a project of building a tree-house within the towering maples, oaks, or apple orchard. Technical devices were still something of the future. Television viewing was typically limited, yet none of us felt deprived as, given the choice, we would choose running with the pack outside. Our parents orchestrating “play dates” — how, when, and with whom — was unheard of.

Children are born with the seeds of imagination, ready for fertilization. This isn’t anything parents need to teach, but we do need to nurture it, providing opportunities for unstructured play, which helps children master fears as they creatively face inner conflicts. Play is the “work” of children, their time to wrestle with questions, to make sense of their world, to gain some control. So much of our current “nature deficit” can be attributed to electronic distractions — providing new worlds of learning, yet also habit-forming stimulation. When parents attempt to limit the seductive lure of the screen, children now can easily become bored, restless for something to do. The compelling “fix” is to turn on the iPad or TV. As challenging as it might be to listen to an irritable, bored child, this is an opportunity for creative discovery as well as for parents to connect playfully with their children. This is a precious, yet fleeting, chapter, requiring ample time and energy for germinating the seeds of imagination, a child’s natural resource. As Fred Rogers said: “There are times all during life when we need the inner resources to keep ourselves busy and productive all by ourselves.”

Children now are more closely managed, their free time scheduled with structured activities or supervised play. “Whirlybird” parenting — my term for the frenetic activity of parents overseeing, overscheduling, and directing — renders children unable to truly enjoy the magic of childhood. When fears and insecurity drive us to control and restrict, we violate our children’s boundaries, their emotional space. As much as we want our children to grow into successful, confident adults, that won’t happen if we speak and think for them, closely monitoring their peer relationships, their play and exploration. When parents continually answer for and direct their children, school experiences will be challenging for them to navigate. Children will inevitably have conflicts with each other — just as siblings fight, so do friends. As adults, we may recoil at conflict, but it is crucial to child development. A battle over a special toy gives children an opportunity to resolve differences, shaping future behavior. Altercations amongst them can actually be valuable learning experiences, from preschool through high school. Teachers and parents can step in to coach conflict mediation when help is requested. It’s not necessary for adults to insist children apologize or follow a “script” of how to communicate with each other.

We want our children to be critical thinkers, to have a sense of adventure, and to possess the ability to problem solve. We must also inspire them to be leaders, educators, community builders, entrepreneurs, and stewards of the earth. These qualities will not successfully grow when anxious parents manage their children’s every move and conversation. It’s OK to let them have disagreements. When it doesn’t work, they will figure out another way, making peace as needed. This is most effectively accomplished with experiential learning as they play. Their mistakes will be their opportunity to learn and grow.

Children are not the problem and, if given the chance, they come up with some great solutions. When they master the tools for managing their own power struggles, they are better able to appreciate the other person’s perspective. If given opportunities to wrestle with these early experiences, understanding the moral lesson, they’re less likely to have impaired relationships, or increasing struggles in school. One of the best indicators for social adjustment is a child’s ability to develop his own answers to peer difficulties, understanding the impact of his behavior. Just as the unsupervised, spontaneous play of my own childhood taught us to be kind, to be thoughtful, we also learned our actions could hurt another’s feelings, that being self-absorbed rather than collaborative usually sabotaged our fun. As much as we’re now living a very different chapter, can we honestly say the needs of children to have unstructured, unsupervised play have really changed that much?

“Play is the essence of life.” — Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D.