I never thought I’d hear the following sentence from a 12-year-old. “Nothing is fun anymore.”
It wasn’t depression, although she does struggle with it, it was a complaint about the state of life as a 12-year-old. This came out after I asked her to elaborate. She said that there were fewer and fewer places to play as she got older and now it feels like there’s nowhere to go to just play unless you’re little. The playgrounds are all too small, and since you never see any kids older than preschoolers there, it feels weird to play there. Organized sports stopped being fun around age ten, and most of her friends are so busy with school and extracurricular activities that they don’t have a whole lot of time to play anyway. The indoor play spaces are too specialized, with climbing walls or trampolines, instead of just being big indoor play spaces. She’s so busy with school and homework that she’s often too tired to play after school. Being a kid stopped being fun.
Let’s stop and let that soak in. Being a kid stopped being fun. At 12!
At 12, I was riding around the neighborhood on my bike. I spent time playing at my friend’s house. She would often have all of her dollhouse sets laid out across the bed, so our Barbies basically lived in condos. We played badminton in her backyard, walked into town to visit the library and the pizza parlor, swam in the lake in the summer, and skated on it in the winter. We also played her Dad’s Atari, but equal time was spent either outside or hanging out in her room. I didn’t just play at my friend’s house. The neighborhood kids and I would play along the creek side, swinging on the rope swing. We’d play Charlie’s Angels in the woods (yup, I’m that damn old), trudged down the street to the hill to sled in the winter, climbed trees, roller skated in the apartment tennis court, and biked to the 7-11. We played concentration, hand-clapping games like Miss Mary Mack, and did the only three moves we knew in cat’s cradle over and over again.
I was in Jr high at age 12. I skipped kindergarten (yeah, kind of odd but I did) so I was younger than my classmates in 7th grade. I didn’t do any organized sports and I wasn’t allowed to join any after school activities because my mom wanted me home to do homework. I never did homework after school anyway. Instead, I’d wait for my mom to come home from work so I could go out to play. Despite being extremely overprotective parents, mine let me go out all day and come home when the street lights came on. I was allowed to ride my bike to friends’ houses, play outside with the neighborhood kids (although I wasn’t supposed to go on the rope swing, my mom thought it was dangerous, but I did anyway), and had far more freedom than this generation of kids.
Today’s kids can’t go out without constant supervision. I often lament this change since I had hoped my kids would go outside all day and leave me alone to get work done. Instead, they’re home breaking the cardinal rule of only two hours of screen time a day (something I’ve always failed to manage), mostly interacting with friends through chatting on their phones (despite encouraging them to have their friends over more often), and finding ways to interrupt me so often that I start having Jack Torrance style meltdowns about being interrupted
My kids aren’t able to have bike riding adventures around the neighborhood as I did. If you let them ride their bikes or walk to the local park before they start looking like teenagers, someone will call the cops. You might even get arrested for neglect. Think I’m kidding? Read some articles on Free Range Kids where parents were arrested and even jailed for letting their kids walk to the local park at the same age the parents were as kids. At age nine, we were walking around the neighborhood unsupervised. At age nine, I wasn’t allowed to let my kids out of my sight even though I wanted to. I thought it would get easier when they looked old enough to be outside on their own, but a new crop of problems showed up instead.
Another issue when they were younger was overscheduled friends. When we moved to a new neighborhood a few years after my youngest was born, I was happy to see a group of kids down the street that were around my kid’s ages. They seemed excited to meet us, and we exchanged numbers to get the kids together. We tried over and over again but they were always busy with something. Eventually, I stopped calling. I never heard from them again.
That neighborhood was all about playdates, no kids spontaneously socialized. But as I desperately tried to organize these playdates, I found I couldn’t find a way for our schedule to match theirs. One kid’s mom called us so infrequently for playdates that they didn’t even know we moved until I got a text from her ten months later. I was so glad to move from there since you never saw a kid playing outside. I came home one day to a quiet and empty neighborhood devoid of kids one gorgeous spring day and wondered if the child catcher had come through and scooped them up. (The one from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, not the real world ones every parent is hiding their kids from by keeping them inside or in walled yards.)
Our new neighborhood in a new state definitely had more kids outside but still had nearly empty playgrounds. I never saw kids playing a pickup game of baseball or soccer, and despite kids now showing up at our door to play (yay!) they are now too busy with school and sports to do it as often as they did when we first moved here. (Boo!)
All this had me thinking about how play, in general, is fleeing from our lives. More specifically, unstructured play is inaccessible to kids by the time they hit their tweens. Playgrounds have been downsized to “protect” kids from getting hurt but in the process have become too small for older kids to play. The local playground is usually only populated by supervised preschoolers and kindergarteners, and possibly their older siblings if they haven’t hit double digits yet.
Parents keep blaming video games and phones but don’t take into account that there are fewer options that are free and unstructured. Sports are now almost exclusively organized and adult-led. Even “recreational” sports wind up becoming competitive by the time they’re ten. It’s no longer about the fun of playing together but the pressure to win. Both my kids left organized sports when they got tired of getting benched or yelled at by coaches and teammates when they made a mistake… on a recreational team! I never see kids playing freeze tag or jump rope or drumming up a game of kickball. This may still exist somewhere, but not anywhere I’ve lived or visited. Tweens and teens are not just losing the opportunity to play; they are losing the motivation and the creativity that fuels unstructured play.
Oh and then there are the adults. Adults that are so busy running around with their kids, organizing PTA events, running a household, and keeping up at work that they don’t have time to play. Or when they do, it’s highly structured or something acceptable to do as an adult. It’s even worse if you don’t have kids because then you don’t feel like you have an excuse to do something childlike. When you have kids, you suddenly have a reason to go running through the sprinklers, playing hopscotch, or having a water gunfight, all things you might feel weird doing if you didn’t have kids. I felt the need to change that.
I want to remind people that play is important and not just for little kids. Play helps us handle stress better, improve cognitive function, recharge our creativity, help us feel more connected, and improve our mood. We need something to help fortify us when the chips are down, to lift the burden when the stress of adulting feels too heavy, and to give us hope when the world around us looks like an out of control dumpster fire.
Let’s get out there and play a game where it doesn’t matter who wins or who loses. Let’s do an activity that is made up as we go along and has no predicted outcome. Let’s be creative in a freeform way that doesn’t have a defined end product. I’m not saying we have to give up on structured sports and activities, but we need to balance it out with more unstructured fun that lets us explore new possibilities and outcomes. Play is an essential part of life. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. It also can stifle creativity and have a negative impact on our physical and mental health.