Funny, Sad Piece: When Did Kids Stop Knowing How to Play?

Hi Readers — I’ll write about my fabulous day with Mary Duval and her “sex offender” son soon, but first: One of you just sent in this piece that resonated so much. It’s called, “Frolicking 101: When Did Kids Stop Knowing How to Play?” by comedian/essayist Sarah Maizes. Excerpt:

My kids are frolicking!  Really!! MY children!

They’re outside, they’re running around, they’re having fun – without colorful plastic toys, without a play structure, without an adult overseeing, supervising, or facilitating…without ME!

Just a big backyard, rolling grass, a random hill or two and my kids.  I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.

Maybe this wouldn’t be such a big deal if I were used to it.  But I’m not.  We don’t live in the country.  This is just our summer vacation.  At home, my kids almost never play outside, and they certainly don’t play outside without me standing there beside them suggesting what to play and showing them exactly how to play it.

This is such a common situation, I recognized it from my own life. In fact, that’s why I started, “Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave them There Day” — the idea was to have kids encounter each other, outside, and then come up with something to do. What a radical plan! Anyway, here’s hoping that a whole lot of kids are outside today, figuring out — as did this author’s children — that when you find  a grassy hill and you are on top of it, you can propel yourself downward while, in fact, prone.

Simple as that. — Lenore

39 Responses

  1. Thank you Sarah Maizes for writing this and Lenore for sharing it. It gave me a lump in my throat…I’m actually tearing up. I just can’t stand it, the contrast today to when we were kids and free to go on our own adventures and create our own worlds.

  2. It makes me so sad to know that there are kids who can’t do this regularly! My sons have been outside (the 10 year old still his his pjs) since 5:30am hunting the local wildlife. We live in the suburbs and I know there are other kids in the neighborhood, but they aren’t out playing. I haven’t had any other input in my sons’ day so far except offering some breakfast, which was wolfed down. This is the way a mom SHOULD live!

  3. The days that we declare it to be “a no screen day” are always met with protests, and “there’s nothing to do” complaints. They start off bored. Then, I don’t know, ten or fifteen minutes of being bored, and something kicks in. Our two sons are playing something, and it doesn’t really matter to me if it’s inside or outside!! Left to their own devices, they’ll play!!

  4. Sad that we have to have ‘no screen’ days. Rules go for the kids AND me and my wife. My oldest takes to reading while my youngest goes to her clay modeling. I work on my hobbies (slotcars, wood working, etc), while the wife reads or sews. Often we end up playing a family game or two as well. I really enjoy these times and wish I didn’t start the bad habit of screens (TV/PC/Wii). Sort of hard to stop like other bad vices. The Internet is so addictive (he says as he types here).

  5. I notice that there is something magical about being outside. Even though we are usually rushed in the morning, I like to let my kids outside very briefly before I make my final preparations to drive them to “school.” They go out and chase each other in a circle, laughing, then look around to see if there is any interesting wildlife (e.g., caterpillar, potato bug, fawn) or shrapnel from yesterday’s storm. Even if it’s only a minute, it’s totally different from indoors and totally refreshing.

  6. Today is the very last day of what I call “Free Fun” here in Austin, Texas. My kids, ages 5 & 8, have gone practically every day and have darn near wore it out. Playing outside for 8 hours a day! How pure and wonderful is that? Sure, it gets a little hot here in the summer, but that’s what the pavillion is for. Kids can play on the playground, ride bikes, do arts and crafts or play board games. There’s lots of choices for the children.

    I am amazed that this program has been around for 83 years and sometimes they shut down some of the sites around the city due to lack of participation. I personally have recruited lots of families to the program, but still there is reluctance on the part of some of the mothers to leave their kids at the park (they have adult supervision! Most of the adults are teachers and this is their summer job) because it means they won’t have control over what their kids are doing. Some kids attend only once or twice because they’re bored at the park and they don’t know what to do with themselves. I guess they need to hurry back home to play more video games.

    This is such a great program and I can’t wait to participate again next summer! I’m proud to say that my kids can play all day long and only once did my 8-year old son call and ask me to pick him up a little early because he was hot and tired.

  7. This reminds of something I was thinking about yesterday… went to meet a friend for tea, and was waiting for him with my two y/o daughter for about 20 mins. I realised as I arrived that I had no toys or books for her with me, but then thought ‘You know what, she’ll find something to amuse herself with’

    Sure enough she had a lot of fun taking out all the sugar packets from their little bowl (‘More bits!’), then me trying to put them before she could take them out again (‘Funny bits!’) and so on

    We seem so afraid of the phantom of boredom that we forget that, at least until they’re old enough to say and understand ‘I’m bored’, the world is a fundamentally interesting place to them anyway – they don’t know what is or isn’t a toy. So unless it’s a situation where you have to (try to!) keep them quiet and still, there’s no need for toys – and it’s probably better for their imagination too.

  8. this is unrelated to the specific post, but i had a lovely free-range interaction with some children last weekend.

    i was on vacation with 4 of my 30 year old girlfriends. we were walking down the “strand” next to the beach, about to get some coffee, when a beautiful 4 year old girl ran in front of us, talking excitedly as 4 year olds do. i thought she was talking to her dad sitting on the grass next to the strand, but she was talking to us, telling us all about her dog who was tied up at the coffee shop on the other side of the strand. we chatted for 5 minutes, her brother joining us, with her dad sitting yards away, not even watching us. the kids were amazing, and i was so happy to have that interaction with them!

    i talk to children all the time, and have never had any parent look askance (i look pretty “normal” though, and have always worked with kids), but from reading this blog, am realizing it’s becoming rare for parents to even let their kids talk to women strangers. which is so sad, as i get so much enjoyment from chatting with kids, and i know they love to tell their “stories.”

  9. Thank you for this link, it’s always interesting to hear parents’ impressions when they realize how much has been missing from their kids’ lives.

    Did you read the comments? One anonymous commenter went on and on about how dangerous life was nowadays, how the crime rate was skyrocketing, and how it was much safer to keep kids indoors with toys and books. So sad to think that people view life in such oppressive terms…

  10. My kids were having a blast in our backyard this summer really frolicking -until the wasps moved in – I’m allergic, so I’m terrified of my kids being out there (we don’t know if they are allergic too) -and I don’t know what to do! Help!

  11. @Mika –

    Maybe an exterminator? Also, I have noticed that wasps are sometimes attracted to specific plants. One year in our yard it was milkweed. Once the milkweed was gone, the wasps dissipated. Perhaps, if that is the case, you could get rid of the plant in the early morning when the wasps are cold and slow-moving. Or get a handy person to help?

  12. If you have some kids and a grassy slope the second-best toy in the world is a large piece of cardboard to use for a sled. The best – although requiring some of that nasty ol’ structure and planning stuff, not to mention a chest freezer – is to find a 20-gallon or so plastic washtub and freeze 20-gal chunks of ice with rope handles. An “ice sled” that you sit on as you slide down the hill is large fun on 100-degree days.

  13. @jim… can i come play at your house?!

  14. @jim we used to take large boxes and roll down inside of them until we got dizzy and sick! Then we’d do it again! My kids LOVE cardboard but with all this green environmentalism going on it is harder and harder to find such boxes (I am all for limited packaging). I am slowly moving the girls from cardboard to wood and powertools.

  15. My neighbor lady keeps apologizing for her boys running across my lawn, screaming and shouting out loud, and asking me to retrieve their ball when it’s over my fence.

    I know she is being ‘considerate’, but it makes me feel like a curmudgeon when the boys look shamefaced at having ‘annoyed’ me .

    I’ve smiled and said “It’s OK, I enjoy it” several times already , but she persists on apologizing.

    I finally told her “My boys are grown and gone now. I miss the sound of boys playing. Please. It’s OK.”

    Seems to have done the trick.

  16. My kids discovered rolling down hills in the grass very early on. Unfortunately, we also discovered my daughter is severely allergic to grass and breaks out badly after such excursions. So there is a lot of driveway play around here – unfortunate, since we have a nice back yard. But at least it’s still outside.

  17. Mika, why not go to an allergist and get your kids tested to see if they’re allergic? If they are, you can take steps – have an epi-pen, be more careful about avoiding wopsies. If they’re not, well, you still should hire an exterminator!

  18. Hi Lenore – This is Sarah – the author of the piece.

    I was just sittin’ around, you know…”Google-ing” myself…when I saw you excerpted my article – I am so flattered!

    Even more flattering, I’m thrilled you took it in the context in which it was intended. You have no idea how many comments I got from people who thought I didn’t “allow” my kids to play unless I was telling them what to do – as opposed to stating the ridiculous fact that they seem incapable of creative thought! (At least when it comes to playing. Believe me, when it comes to getting cookies, they’re plenty creative…)

    Thanks for not taking me too seriously, but for taking me JUST seriously enough, and for thinking enough of my writing to excerpt my piece! I love Free Range Kids!

    Founder, “Mommy Lite” (

  19. A couple of years ago I was coaching a girls high school soccer team and tried to get them to do a different sort of practice warm-up that involved one person being the leader and the rest of the players following, mimicking the warm-up exercise the leader was doing. They couldn’t do it, they weren’t creative enough to think of exercises to do (even the ones we did regularly). In US youth soccer coaches’ training they teach you that your goal is to train your team so that if you show up a little late to practice, they’ve already got a pick up game going… unfortunately this rarely happens, the kids wait to be told what to do (or try taking crazy shots on goal). It worried me that my players weren’t able to be creative or organize themselves and I didn’t know what to do about it. After reading this blog & the book, I have some better ideas…. I hope I get a chance to implement them!

  20. I think the best way to get kids to entertain themselves is 1) leave them alone to their own imaginative devices and 2) feed their fantasies.

    As free-range as I am with my girls (3 1/2 and 6), I am still learning how to foster that with them. Earlier this year, my uncle came to visit. He’s nearly 60, and a total free-range parent. When my youngest was plays with her dolls, she randomly makes silly comments. I usually answer her with an “uh-huh” or “okay” or “that’s neat,” but when my uncle was here, he started asking her questions and getting her more involved with her fantasy.

    Her: “My puppy is riding a bike.”
    Him: “Where is he going?”
    Her: “To get some ice cream.”
    Him: “What kind of ice cream is he going to get?”
    Her: “Well, he’s really not going to get ice cream. He’s going to the park.”
    Him: “Is he going to go down the slide?”
    Her: “No, he’s going on the swings. He likes to swing.”

    This went on for a good fifteen minutes, with her getting more and more creative about this scenario she came up with. Since then, I’ve learned to indulge and get involved with their creativity. A few simple questions really gets their minds in gear, and makes it that much easier for their creative side to flourish, and inevitably their ability to entertain themselves (whether indoors or out) will become second-nature. Who needs Baby Einstein or Leap Frog? Certainly not this family!! 🙂

  21. Uly: Problem is that if the kids have never been stung, they’re by definition not allergic and an allergy test will be negative. The very nature of an allergy is that it only develops after one or more exposures to the potential allergen; the first exposure (and sometimes the first several exposures) doesn’t cause any reaction because it takes quite a bit of time for the immune system to create the antibodies (IgE) that cause the reaction.

    There are no available reliable tests (there are some quack-marketed ones) to determine whether or not someone will develop an allergy to a particular allergen. This is also why testing your kid to see if he/she is allergic to a food before introducing it is a scam.

  22. Yesterday, I was driving by the house we’re buying when I saw two boys climbing the trees in their front yard. No adults around — just the two of them climbing way up in the branches. I was so excited! It was confirmation to me that we picked a good neighborhood.

  23. Oh, really? I had no idea, ebohlman! Well, other than the facts it was good advice : )

  24. Last weekend we attended Family Camp hosted at a nearby Girl Scout camp. Saturday was filled with an array of activities such as horseback riding, tie dying and archery (which both my 7 AND 4 year old did!). The best part of the weekend? Letting the kids run around the camp. Without us. The coolest thing they did was built “forts” from tree limbs and such down by the creek. Many of the parents there commented on how nice it was to let their kids roam. If only they could do that every day. It makes me sad that they can’t. One, because we live in a big city, in a desert and two, because someone would probably call CPS on me.

  25. One of the freakiest things I’ve ever seen in my life was the day my now-ex husband had his three children over for the weekend (this was one of the first weekends they’d stayed with us after he and I got together). We sent them outside to play, and they went outside. They looked a little puzzled, but they went outside. About ten minutes later, I looked out the window at them, and they were all three just standing there, huddled together, looking around. They were ten, eight, and six years old at the time.

    I went out to see if they were okay. I figured something had scared them or something bad had happened. The oldest one looked at me and said, “What are we supposed to DO?”

    I found out later that these kids had never, ever, in their entire lives been allowed to play unsupervised – indoors or out. They didn’t know what to do.

    It took a long time for us to help them learn how to play outside without adults telling them what to do. They were scared to death of unstructured free time. It was nice to see them loosen up a little and start enjoying spending time outdoors, but the thought of them all just standing there like that still creeps me out.

  26. I’m glad to say my kids have never had a problem playing creatively by themselves, inside or out. We are lucky that we have a nice backyard where they can go wild, but even in winter when they don’t go outside for weeks at a time, they can make up all sorts of things to do inside without my help. The only downside is the huge mess they are capable of making! I think the key is that I’ve always let them do want they want in their free time. And I try to ensure they have free time by limiting scheduled activities. The only things they have to ask permission for are to go on the computer/Xbox or watch movies/TV, and our rule is usually no “screen activities” when the sun is shining….

  27. I luckily have a children’s playground near my house. I used to let my 7 1/2 yr old go with our 11 yr old neighbour unsupervised, until my son told me that a 20-something year old had stopped to play with them. When I asked a neighbour about him, I was told there is something not quite right about this young man, never been told specifically what it was…I am now leery about sending them off alone .

  28. The ability to play outside doesn’t come instantly. Yes, it is natural and healthy, but a a life under constant supervision and with constant organized activity doesn’t develop the skills that are necessary to take edvantage of an unstructured environment. My now teenage daughters were quite unstructured as young kids, but now, at 13 and 17 still need a day or two to adapt to vacation mode with no Internet, no TV and no cell phones when we go away. But in the end it’s biking, once you’ve learnt how to do it, it will come back to you.

    I find unsupervised and unstructured outdoor play to be a difficult sell to parents of young kids nowadays. They all seem terrified by the idea that their kids may lose out by not learning Japanese at 3, doing dance lessons and karate at 4. And God, if they don’t read by 5 you need a private tutor.

    I wish the work of Matti Berström was more widely published in English. He’s a neuroscientist who argues the case that brain development in children is best promoted by allowing them to play freely and learn to manipulate and deal with a natural environment. That may be a selling point for a generation of over-parenting parents.

  29. Great article. My 6 year old grandson is obsessed with the outdoors. He lives in the front of the house, we live in Brooklyn. After a day in Prospect Park he comes home and asks if he can now go the the playground a few blocks away. He makes friends easily and he doesn’t want adults to interfere when he is playing. He loves his freedom. When we ride bikes together he makes sure he rides way in front so that he senses his freedom and comes off as a big kid. In a few years he will own the neighborhood as he roams it by himself.

  30. Do you know about Roxaboxen?

    A true story from the Arizona frontier a century ago…a wonderful book, too.

    Our kids go to a Waldorf-methods school, and one of the striking things is the “play yard”. It’s sticks, stumps, wood chips, and dirt, and the kids are always figuring out their own games to play with them. (My wife and I had a joke last year: ‘Did you hear the play yard equipment is being upgraded?’ ‘Really? How so?’ ‘They’re getting new mud!’)

  31. sorry, but sarah maize’s kids must be pretty lame that they need her “standing there beside them suggesting what to play and showing them exactly how to play it.” i have to wonder about articles like these sometimes. anyway, the title is misleading, kids certainly know how to play; she’s talking about unstructured, unsupervised outside play, which is great of course, but that’s only one kind of play, and not the only kind that’s “valid.” when her kids are in their playroom making kingdoms out of stuffed animals, they’re still playing.

    ok ok i know, it’s a comedy piece. but i hate alarmist titles like that. kids know how to play just fine, leave ’em alone. a kid who owns no toys, if dropped in a playroom full of them, would also spend some time looking around in confusion before getting going, but we wouldn’t be wailing about how kids just don’t know how to play INSIDE anymore.

  32. I really like your site and ideas. I grew up in a big city and our parents let us out at night to play spring and tag and let us walk to the pool a mile or so away and other places. now I think of letting my son do that (when he’s older of course) and feel sick. and I know that’s wrong. so I read your site and try to let him have more freedom.

    part of it is I wanted him so much and never thought I could have kids and then he was way early and in the hospital for a long time and…its hard to let go.

    I recently got him a puppy and everyday they go out in my yard and “explore” in the bushes…where I can’t see them. a few days ago I was talking to my friend on the phone and she asked “where’s Asher he’s usually right next to the phone” and I said oh he’s playing somewhere…I’m slowing loosening my hold and we are both benefitting.

    so with all that. I appreciate your example of letting kids be kids without so much hovering. I linked to your blog on mine –

  33. I took a child development in University. This was mid 1980’s. My prof was going on and on how kids had no imagination. I kept disagreeing with him – citing examples of my younger cousins (20 some odd in multiple countries)

    Then I went to a party my Adult cousin hosted that included my younger cousins. When I went back to class I agreed that the prof was correct – except for my cousins.

    My cousins came up with game after game after game. The other kids had never played some of them like freeze tag or statues. My cousin had rented a bouncy house. There was no attendant. The cousins quickly divided the kids into groups and worked out a rotation. Then there was an argument about who was getting a longer turn.

    They came to me and asked if I they could borrow my watch. I like them, so I sat down and hung out for a while. Talking to my cousins while timing them. Then I decided to go talk to other family members. I gave the kids my watch.

    When I went back up to the house. this woman made a comment about me falling down on the job. I gave her a look and went on about my business. Figuring it for a bad joke. I was sitting talking to some other cousins and eating, when the woman went up to the Host cousin and complained about the babysitter not doing her job.

    Everyone looked around. The host cousin said what babysitter – when her sister figured it out and said, That’s Kimberly not a babysitter.

    The woman ended up leaving in a huff because Host cousin hadn’t paid for a babysitter at a family party with tons of parents and kids.

    Cousin would have and has paid for lifeguards at large pool parties now that she has a pool. That is different. FOr the record no one got hurt on the bouncy house.

  34. Dalia – This is Sarah here. Just wanted to respond to your comment. Yes. Yes indeed. My kids are lame.

  35. I’m happy to report that my kids (6&8) played freely all day today. My mom and I took them to the botanical garden in our city and they spent hours running around, making up games, and having a great time. We found a shady bench to sit on because it was HOT! Good thing the heat doesn’t bother kids like it does adults 🙂 After the gardens we went to see the musical The Sound Of Music. We are in St. Louis and have a huge open air theater with free seats in the back. We arrived about 3 hours early and spread out a blanket and had a picnic. After we ate the kids took leftovers and started feeding ants. They made a huge ant complex, and it occupied them for over 2 hours. They ran around collecting popcorn people dropped and getting water at the fountain and building the ants a dream home. During this time I barely paid attention to them except to snap a few pics of the amazing ant city they had built. My mom and I played board games and talked while the kids amused themselves. Even after we packed our stuff, took it to the car, and found our seats in the theater they stayed with the ants. I thought how sad that for many kids they would have no idea what to do with themselves for that long without a hand held video game system. During the intermission they took off running and found some other kids to play tag with in the dark until I came to get them when the show was coming back on. During the show my Daughter needed to use the bathroom, I told her just to go and come back. This freaked my mom out a bit and she went to the back of the theater where she could see the restrooms and watched for her to go in and come out 🙂 All in all it was a great free range day! Thanks so much Lenore for teaching us, you are making a difference one kid at a time 🙂

  36. Great article. I send my boys out the front door daily to play. We are in a semi-urban neighborhood but they can still grab magnifying glasses and coffee cans and go hunt bugs or ride their bikes down the sidewalk (they race – yikes) or knock on the neighbor’s door (my 4 year old and his little crush next door played hopscotch yesterday – drew it out on the sidewalk – hopped and laughed). We don’t have much yard, but I do set up an easel on our deck – put a big dollhouse out there for my 2 year old (her old infant tub is the “pool”) – I do have a water table because I quite enjoy the pretend play I witness that the little ones start on their own and use to engage themselves – oblivious to adults and others (I know to water table or not to water table was a conversation one day). They dig in the dirt near our garden – they pick tomatoes – they run down the street when the kids on the corner get home so that they all play on the swingset (on those evenings – they snack or have dinner, picnic-style, outside). I basically just put balls, bats, wagons, etc. outside and let them go at it. I hand off ice cream cones and have them wander over to the neighbor’s treehouse (albeit without the two year old – she can climb and…. that treehouse is 10 feet up – OK for the others).

  37. Anna, no-one else has pulled you up on this, so I will. You say a 20-something year old man stopped to play with your kids. Well so what? Maybe he just likes kids. Your neighbour told you there’s something ‘not quite right’ about him, but couldn’t tell you what? How do you know there’s anything wrong with him at all, apart from that your neighbour is suspicious of his stopping to play with kids? And even if there is something ‘not quite right’ about him, then why assume that he is therefore about to harm your children? Maybe he just has a mental age of 10 and likes playing on the swings.
    I’d say, keep sending your kids out to play. If they meet this man again and feel uncomfortable with him, they can let you know – and maybe you can meet him yourself sometime and assess how dangerous he is to your kids. But for all you know he’ll never show up again.

  38. My son was in speech therapy last year. After the practice session, he would get to play with a toy set. His speech therapist would always comment about how many kids would come in and not know how to play with the toys unless the adults suggested what to do or gave them scenarios to act out.

  39. A must have on my list is compression socks. My favorites are from and CEP.

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