View from Glen Hill: Balance in all things
A very interesting guest commentary appeared in this newspaper three weeks ago under the headline “How to raise capable kids.” Its three distinguished authors are leaders of Wilton Youth Services and Wilton Youth Council. The commentary described a presentation at Trackside sponsored by those agencies and given by Boston College psychology professor Peter Gray Ph.D.
Gray spoke about the benefits of “free play” — play by kids without adult coaching or leadership. Gray contrasted that with tight schedules of activities for children and youth including in organized sports that are coach- and parent-led. The commentary notes that “when kids play on their own, they are empowered to make all the decisions … involv[ing] leadership, risk assessment, planning, resourcefulness, negotiation. Through free play, children learn social skills, empathy, and self-control. … Children are deprived of the chance to learn these skills when adults make the decisions for them.”
In fact, Gray thinks that the significant rise in anxiety and depression among children over the past half-century may be a reflection of the growing absence of this kind of self-directed children’s play.
I see both sides of this coin in the lives of our own grandkids, especially as our oldest moves into organized sports. He loves football and especially playing on a team. The league in his area of the Boston suburbs takes team play very seriously. For their annual participation fee, the parents of these 6-year-olds receive loaned athletic equipment the quality of which puts what I got in high school over a half-century ago to shame. However, they receive that equipment with the admonition that a lost football helmet, for example, will cost them $500 to replace, and I can (very gratefully) see why, with the remarkable baffled protective layers on the inside.
Jack and his teammates receive outstanding coaching. Each play takes some minutes to set up with four on-field coaches on each team helping to position their players and discussing with each player individually what to be looking for and how to react as the play unfolds. I’ve recently seen similar degrees of dedicated coaching right here in Wilton in soccer for the Almajareesh children.
A half-dozen years ago I wrote in this column about the Wilton fourth grade AA league’s Sea Dogs team and what became their championship season after a very discouraging championship-game loss the year before.
I noted: “If anything, last year’s experience built team cohesion even more strongly as they chose to let their disappointment be a building experience. … In fact, the team is strongly characterized by the extent of the players’ support for each other, both on and off the field. They take joy in each other’s successes and also support each other in tough times: the dropped ball, the demoralizing strike-out, the base-too-far where their advance is cut off. After that championship game that ended this season, the team sat down on the infield, circled by their supporting family and friends, as their head coach spoke about specific highlights of each player’s performance through the whole season. … That individual acknowledgement of each player’s season highlights was really touching, and in fact, behind this team’s achievements clearly lay a really dedicated and caring coaching staff. The team was very much a reflection of those coaching qualities, something very special that transcended their final win and made this a championship season with or without it.”
And I see that same joy that Jack feels in coached team play off-field, as Jack always wants to throw and catch passes, seemingly endlessly. He does so with his parents, his brother, or me (on visits). And I also see the joy of group free play in Maine, with Jack and his younger brother Ellis and first cousins Hazel and Nora making up their own activities and working through the frictions, including noisy arguments, to find what they can all agree to do together and then taking various decision-making and leadership roles as free play unfolds.
I know now to stay out of the way and not try to organize things myself, and I expect I’ll find that as empowering for me as for them. But I’ll also remember the great virtues of organized sports and their major role for the good in kids’ development even as I recognize significant concerns surrounding the overweening demands on players’ time and out-of-control parents on the sidelines. I expect that the authors of that free-play commentary would join me in calling here for observance of the golden mean: balance in all things, in this case both free and organized.