Calvinball for the 21st Century

In response to my previous post that questioned the necessity of cell phones for middle school kids, a reader wrote:

What concerns me the most is this constant removal and detachment from what’s going on in our immediate surroundings. Do kids even listen to birds anymore or watch leaves fall from a tree?

Undoubtedly, this is not the first person to express a genuine concern about the next generations engagement with the offline world.  In fact, this summer I conducted number of oral history interviews with former athletes, coaches and administrators of Western University, and there was a similar view expressed by most that kids are failing to engage with their surroundings.  Therese Quigley, the current Athletic Director of Western, and former Athletic Director of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, went further, arguing in our interview that many children no longer know how to engage with their surroundings.  Here is a section of the transcript from my interview with Therese:

Therese Quigley:  Because we are truly building and developing people and communities through sport.  Regardless of whether it’s here in London, Ontario at the University of Western Ontario or whether you’re involved in Right to Play and you’re, and you’re actively involved in sport development or, pardon me, development through sport….Ted [Director of the Metras Museum] could write ten volumes of his experience in terms of how you saw young men and women shaped through that experience and where they would have gone if they didn’t have that vehicle.  Um, I have hundreds of examples myself, so you know…

Dave Sikkema:  Do you find that’s changing in Canada?  [The other day we] talked a little bit about specialization, and sports [becoming] so specialized now that it’s almost making the semi-good athletes afraid of entering into athletics.

Therese Quigley:  Yeah, I think that specialization is, you know, it’s not even so much, for me, the specialization, but the over-structure.  You know, kids just don’t go out and play.  And through play you learn a lot of things.  I mean when I think about just going out and playing on the street you know, after dinner, we would set our own rules.

Dave Sikkema:  Yeah.

Therese Quigley: And the rules were, you know, Suzie over there had to touch the puck before you could score because she’s only five years old and we needed to get her into the game and if the score got to out of control we had to change the rules so it was more competitive.  You know, we were negotiating all the time…

…So structure, I think we’re a bit over structured, and as a result of that, kids don’t develop both technically in the games.  They’re a bit too programmed and structured I think.  And I look at, you know, if you just look at basketball for years and years, the US dominated and suddenly it wasn’t such a domination.  And the European game which allows a lot more play making as opposed to structured plays.

Dave Sikkema:  Yep…A rigid system, that everybody is just a cog in the wheel.

Therese Quigley: A rigid system, yeah.  And so I think that, that, we’ve gone to an extreme in over structuring and not giving athletes the opportunity to develop their own decision making.

Although Therese is talking about the rigid structures or systems imposed by coaches upon athletes at a varsity level, her analysis certainly carries over to address the concerns voiced by the reader who concluded her comment:

Sadly, I think what we see is the rise of more after school team sports – not that it’s terrible – but what happened to the impromptu play? Now, parents have to spend half their lives driving their kids to games. Nostalgia, yes, but self-directed play is good for the mind, body and soul.

So perhaps it is not fair to ascribe all blame to our digital devices when discussing our dis-engagement from the world.  We might do well to ask if parents, wanting to ensure the success of their children, are guilty of creating the same rigid structures or systems to ensure this success?  These structures might involve many good things from after-school basketball teams to violin lessons.  But if taken to the extreme, it is not hard to see how such overmanagement of children’s lives effectively reduces their agency to the extent that impromptu play is not only avoided, it is hardly understood.

Solution?  Calvin Ball for the 21st Century

As I alluded to in the last post, my childhood was marked by forays into forests followed by a few trips to the ER.  My friends and I were part of a few organized sport teams, but for the most part our lives resembled Bill Waterson’s Calvin and Hobbes.  That is, we were left to our own devices to find entertainment.  Our games were no different from Calvinball, where rules evolved and were added in the moment to fine tune our competition.  Winning not only required skill, it required imagination to create rules that coincided with your teams strength.  And as Calvin said, “The only permanent rule is that you can’t play it the same way twice!”  With this in mind I want to leave readers with two lessons on the importance of outdoor play.

1. Outdoor Play enhances Physical Development

According to Erica Roth, and common sense, outdoor play improves motor skills and burns calories at a much higher rate than indoor activities.

2. Outdoor Play enhances Cognitive Functioning

Erica Roth also argues that a child’s social skills and confidence multiply when they are engaged in outdoor activities.  Such confidence is a result of mastering physical skills in an environment where you are free to yell with friends who are also going through a similar learning process .  Rae Pica adds this analysis:

Outside, children are more likely to invent games. As they do, they’re able to express themselves and learn about the world in their own way. They feel safe and in control, which promotes autonomy, decision-making, and organizational skills. Inventing rules for games (as preschoolers like to do) promotes an understanding of why rules are necessary. Although the children are only playing to have fun, they’re learning.

Whether or not it is our digital devices or our over-structured activities that are to blame for reducing engagement with the offline world, let these lessons shape how we manage our time, and the time of our children.*

*I actually don’t have  children.


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