By William Porter
As a child, I vividly remember the cold afternoons on my walk home from school. I would no sooner arrive home and my mom would send us back into the elements to play with the neighborhood gang.
The routine was the same – finish homework, play until dinner, eat quickly and return to the outdoors until the street lights came on. There was not a game we didn't play – “Capture the Flag,” “Steal the Bacon,” “Kick the Can,” “Red Rover,” “Capture,” “Fugitive,” “Hide and Go Seek,” “Box Car Derby” as well as baseball, football, sledding, soccer, basketball, skate boarding and street hockey.
We made the teams, officiated the games, invented new rules, implemented the "do-over" rule if we couldn't agree on an issue, called "interference" if a ball hit the backyard tree and went out of bounds. In general, we were masters of our own domain. The conflict resolution skills, tolerance of individual differences, leadership skills gained and other related cognitive, physical and social skills acquired were immeasurable.
The notion of unorganized play seems to be more and more a thing of the past. Even school recess time has taken a hit recently as school districts are faced with an ever-increasing pressure to "succeed" in the classroom. There simply don’t seem to be as many kids outside playing these days. Where have all of the kids gone?
At one time, the beauty of being a kid at play was that it was the one facet of our lives where adult intervention did not occur. All of the decisions were left to the group and we enjoyed this freedom. We organized everything, and although we often claimed to be bored, the reality was we never were. We learned the value of trust when we helped each other across a fast flowing creek. We taught each other honesty by getting caught in a lie and thereby facing the wrath of the group. Teamwork was fostered by attempting to win whatever the game of the week was. There was no trophy for first place, no certificate of participation and no worry about who the MVP might be. It was a time that belonged to us.
When someone was injured, we all gathered around in a sympathetic manner and surveyed the scene. After several minutes of deliberation, we collectively issued our prognosis to the injured mate. In most cases, we picked him up, told him in a variety of ways to "suck it up" and dusted the dirt off of him. There were seldom any tears and certainly no one dared run home to tell a mom about the accident for fear the game might come to a premature end.
Settling arguments was great fun and we had a variety of ways to do that as well. The most common was the "do-over rule." If one team observed a ball as foul and another as fair, everyone eventually nodded heads and agreed that we should just send in another pitch. This usually did occur after a fair share of yelling and a few expletives; however, it was the main strategy of choice for our neighborhood. It was quick, fair and, most importantly, the game continued. Sometimes we would start at the bottom of the baseball bat or a stick and work our hands, hand over hand to the top. The person, whose hand ended at the top of the bat won the argument. Again, the game went on without delay. "Rocks, paper, scissors" is one strategy that is still in use today. It was a staple for us as well. A final way that we resolved conflicts was to simply move on to a different game. I assume our logic was that a fresh start would satisfy the tempers of everyone involved. Regardless of the argument, it was settled quickly and in a manner that was fair for both sides.
What does this have to do with athletics and our roles as coaches and administrators? Everything! The fitness of our youth – both physically and mentally – is critical. In general, our kids contend with more distractions than former generations. We all are tired of reading about how unfit our youth are and how overweight we have become as a nation.
Organized youth sports is great, but it is not the total package. There are many youth sport options for kids where the parental support is fantastic, the coaching is excellent and the involvement is high. But the bottom line is that our kids are not organizing enough of their own activities anymore.
It was the practice in the back yard that honed our skills as athletes. Catching and throwing were everyday occurrences. Running games, jumping, climbing, swimming and biking kept us in shape. The leaders were not selected by adults based on their pre-determined criteria; they just stepped up and organized and the neighborhood group followed.
We need to all do our part to keep our athletic programs strong. Encourage the parents in your district to reduce the amount of screen time their children are exposed to. Ask them to invite several children to their house for a play day and don’t organize anything for them. Ask them to simply kick the children out of the house and they will create the rest. The strength of our programs depends on the development of critical thinkers who are physically fit enough to handle themselves in an athletic environment.
About the Author: William Porter is director of athletics at Canton Central School in New York.