The Common Good

Go Play!

The big red barn on the King family farm in New Hampshire.
The big red barn on the King family farm in New Hampshire.

The big red barn on my family’s farm was built in the 1880’s.

The wood beams (almost nine feet off the ground), were wide enough for my mom, her siblings and a few other kids from nearby homes to run along. One of their favorite games was a modified sort of dodge ball with one person standing on the barn floor taking aim at the others running on the beams.

It was not safe. But...it was a lot of fun.

As kids ourselves, my brother and I tried to imitate this game in the barn and my mother soon got upset with whichever one of our uncles had told us about it.

My brother and I climbed trees much higher than reasonably advisable and spent hours wandering in the woods unsupervised. During the winter we built “jumps” for sledding runs that were dangerous enough that they routinely spilt blood.

Minor injuries were a regular part of our play. And, still, it was fun.

Like many parents, there were days when my mom had to turn off the TV and shove her kids out the door. Sure, it was (momentarily) painful for (mini)me when I missed an episode of Tail Spin or Dark Wing Duck, but now that I'm grown, I am ever grateful for the encouragement my parents gave us to just go play — even if it meant my mother had to make more than infrequent trips to the emergency room.

Lenore Skenazy, host of Discovery Channels World’s Worst Mom, wrote Friday in the Wall Street Journal about the troubling trend of kids not getting the chance to play anymore:

A new study of how preschoolers spend their days may make you want to run around screaming, which is apparently more than the tykes themselves get to do. After interviewing child-care providers from 34 very different Cincinnati-area centers — urban to suburban, Head Start to high income — researchers found that kids spend an average of only 2 percent to 3 percent of their day in "vigorous activities."

Can you imagine that? Children spending 97 percent of their day not running around? It's like a desk job, except with cookie time. Excuse me — apple time. When you consider that three-quarters of American kids aged 3 to 5 are in some kind of preschool program and a lot of them come home only to eat, sleep and go back again, this is beyond sad — it's bad. Bad for their bodies, their brains, their blubber. Baddest of all are the reasons behind this institutionalized atrophy: The quest for ever more safety and education.

Skenazy deals with some of the developmental opportunities that are lost when they're replaced by too much quiet, safe and structured time.

But disappearing play time is not just a problem of pre-schoolers.

Dr. David Naugle of Dallas Baptist University wrote over at Q Ideas about the problem Christians have with play. He notes that some of Christianity’s most prominent detractors criticized the faith for its adherents lack of joy. Naugle makes an argument from natural theology that:

The universal and transcultural fact is that children are natural born players. This well-attested observation is sufficient in and of itself to establish the idea that play is an indelible characteristic of human beings which persists well beyond childhood, though in different forms. Though some feared if children played as children, they would also play as adults, the reverse is undoubtedly wiser: if children don’t play as children, then they won’t be able to play as adults.

As to a scriptural basis Naugle points to the Sabbath as a “thankful enjoyment of the world” and related to the biblical concepts of both food and festival. In scripture, a pattern of regular celebration and thankfulness lays a foundation for understanding and appreciating play. Naugle says descriptions of Jesus are evidence that Christ was far from a humorless or dour figure:

When we add to the evidence from Jesus’ friendships ("a friend of tax-gatherers and sinners” — Luke 7:34), His frequent celebrations and dinner parties (“the Son of Man has come eating and drinking” — Luke 7:34), and His attendance at a festive wedding where He turned water into wine (John 2: 1-2), we cannot but help get a fresh impression of the festive nature and delightful personality of Jesus. His convivial lifestyle contributes significantly to a biblical theology of play.

Naugle makes the case that play matters from a faith perspective and Skenazy from developmental context. From either approach, play doesn’t just matter, it’s essential to who we are.

All that is to say: Enjoy your weekend.

Go play.

Tim King is Communications Director for Sojourners. Follow Tim on Twitter @TMKing.

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