Their Own True Nature: Children Want to Play

There’s a moment that stands out for me in a video taken of a family party. My son Kyle, three-years-old, reaches his hand out to another child, not of our family, and asks softly, “Do you want to play with me?”

It’s a child’s nature to want to play with other children and somewhere after the age of two years, they’re learning to play cooperatively. Until competition is introduced into their lives, most usually through team sports, they have no concept of it as part of play.

Do you remember playing outdoor games as a child? Did you have family wiffle ball games or did you play badminton or volley ball on the lawn? How about P-I-G or H-O-R-S-E, where you scored a letter for every basket you made? Did you perhaps play catch with a parent, or throw a football around with your brother?  Do you remember it being fun no matter who won?

The emphasis on competition is way over the top in our children’s sports today. As much as one may hear, “I just want them to have fun, playing the sport” I don’t see many happy faces on the losing side. You’ll also hear “It’s only a game.”  If it’s only a game then why does it require practice every night of the week and on Sundays and on holidays? Mother’s Day is still a holiday, right? My grandsons had games scheduled on Mother’s Day. Am I the only one that feels kid’s sports scheduling has gotten way out of hand?

The baseball greats of my time like Carl Yastrzemski, didn’t grow up having ball practice on Sundays. They didn’t have it every night until 8 PM on school nights. I’ll  betcha that Yaz was out in the back yard though, playing catch with a family member, that he was playing pick up ball with kids in the neighborhood every chance he got.  Yaz was having fun, playing ball.

Our kids today don’t have time to play catch in the back yard.
There’s little time between when they get home from school before they’ve got to get ready for practice or get suited up for a game. When they get home they’ve got to eat, do homework and go to bed. Someone, probably the mother, has to get the uniforms, equipment, water bottles, etc. all ready for the next day’s round before she can rest.

When I went home to be with family in Greenland for a week last September,

I met grandsons, Kyle and Colby at their bus stop, usually my mother’s job, as their parents are working. As soon as they unloaded their 50 pound back backs, they were out on my parent’s lawn tossing a football to one another. I’d never learned to throw a football. In about fifteen minutes time, Kyle had taught me how so that I could play with them. He’s an excellent teacher. It was so much fun!

I asked Kyle about his football team and found out that he was no longer playing. I knew that he’d had trouble keeping up with school and homework with football practice being five nights a week until 8 PM. As much as he loves the sport, his parents had to make a tough decision and made the only one they could. One doesn’t tell the coach that my child can only make it to practice three times a week and he needs to be in bed on a school night by 8 PM.

I’m not sure about this, but I don’t believe adults who play softball or soccer are having to practice five nights a week up until their bedtime. If we don’t ask this of adults than where do we get off thinking it’s okay for our kids? So why is this total disregard for our children’s needs for play, rest, supper at a decent hour, going unaddressed?

The bottom line:  competition. We have a fear that our children won’t be prepared to compete out in the world. May I point out here that two of the most successful companies of our day, Apple and Google, foster creativity, play and cooperation in their workplace?

Childhood is short, as a grandmother well knows. Children need time to play cooperatively for the sheer joy of it. They need adequate nourishment and rest. They need down time with their family as a whole. This insane approach to children’s  sports programming, all or nothing, goes against our children’s true nature. What do you think?

Now, turn off the computer, grab the kids and some flashlights and go outside. Tag, you’re it!

All week long, every minute of the day, remember to

Shine your Light!




  1. From Thea:

    Timely as always. The words “disregard for our children” although being taken slightly out of context, leap out and define the reason of why I usually choose to make different choices for my child than most of the parents of her classmates.

    Kylie is currently refusing to do team sports, saying that they are not fun anymore. She is aware of the difference between repeatedly hitting and throwing balls in the backyard until hunger takes over, and having to wear a uniform, being placed on a team, and follow the “rules.”

    This however is not the only reason she does not want to play t-ball this year. “Adults are not nice to everyone,” was her actual reason. After asking her what she was referring to, Kylie explained to a very stunned Momma, parents talking about other parents. When those words came out of her mouth I was telling myself over and over for a week is that I have assisted her in way to make desicions for herself that are beneficial to her. However, I am still beside myself that while I was coaching, she was learning a different lesson other than my Momma supports me. I find that most team sports in our area have nothing to do with play, or the children who are playing them.

    Kylie has fallen in love with horses. The confindence that she is creating within herself while learning to ride will give her so much more success than believing that she has to compete for everything. She has even stated that she would like to learn how to do everything on a horse, but shows no interest in showing, she just wants to trail ride.

    I am grateful that she is not being influenced by competition in sports. There is enough of that in school…from grades,to clothes (yes everyone my 8 year old knows name brands, I remember just hoping that whatever animal is on the sweater my grandmother knit did not match one she did when I was 2), and toys. Funny how these are only issues at school. When at home or in a store she would never ask for clothes over books, toys though…

    I ask daily to give her what she needs to continue to build confidence and not give into what media would like to sell her.

    I am already aware that my choices for my child are different than most. When asked how will she be able to make in the “real world”, my answer is she will already have the skills, confidence, and knowledge to make a place for herself in her world. She will not have to “compete” to be herself.

    1. Namaste` and thanks so much Thea! There are many ways I could have gone with this article and it was my hope that others would comment on the aspects of this subject that I did not cover. Team sports can bring out the worst in parents and sometimes the coaches, even at the level of t-ball. You and your husband have been raising Kylie to know that her take on what she’s experiences counts. You give her the choice to participate or not. Good for you to pick up on her natural bent towards horses. This is honoring your child’s own true nature! Team sports aren’t for every child and for some reason the idea that a child has to play something every season has become ingrained. There’s this idea that it’s good for their character…etc., etc. Well, this could be true in the best of all circumstances. What you’ve described about parents being catty is par for the course though. It’s embarrassing isn’t it? You’ve saved yourself, your husband and Kylie a whole lot of running around having identified Kylie’s natural preference, with her help. It sounds like it may cost you a lot in hay though, down the road. Oh well! Blessings!

  2. An email from Lauren Gonzalez:

    Namaste Joanna!

    Thank you again for a thoughtful and inspiring essay. I have very strong feelings about this topic, and before I get to them, I want to share a story about the creator of the field of sociobiology, E.O. Wilson, on the topic– I heard him speak years ago at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and at one point during the Q&A a man in the audience asked Wilson, “What or who is to blame for the fact our children don’t know how to play, and no longer play outdoors?” Wilson thought for just a second, and then said with a straight face, “I blame the soccer moms.” Well, as you can imagine, the auditorium erupted with laughter. When everyone calmed down the man asked, “What do you mean?” Wilson, a wise one in his 80s, said that as soon as we began to “organize” our children’s activities outdoors, we took the “wonder” out of playing.


    My observation is that this has largely been a uniquely American issue–although this is changing, too. But walk heretofore through the streets of Mexico, Spain, Turkey, Scotland, for example, and while you see multitudes of young kids kicking around a soccer ball, they do so without coaches or coordinators nearby. They are “playing” at the sport they love–futbol, or what we call soccer. No uniforms, but perhaps a jersey bearing their soccer idol’s number. Sure, these kids largely aspire to be like the soccer stars, but when they are out on the streets outside their apartments, they are just playing. Is there an element of competition? Of course, but when mom calls for dinner, they go inside and eat with the family. There isn’t a pick up at 8 p.m. after practice–the parents are still in control, and the kids, while fantasies of sports grandeur may swirl in their heads, are just playing.

    This is a generalization, of course, also based on my father’s family and my observations when traveling. My dad grew up in Mexico, and as soon as school was out they collected in the neighborhood and kicked a soccer ball around, but it didn’t cut into family time, and it was, in their minds, PLAY. No one was coaching, the hours weren’t set–it’s what they did for FUN, much like playing catch in the front yard with Yaz.

    Our competitiveness and need to “produce” something out of all of our time spent is destroying our ability to create, enjoy, and (God forbid!) RELAX! We are raising our children like cattle, or in the same mindset–that being that each activity needs to lead toward the end goal, which for cattle is slaughter at a plump and healthy age, but for children is college and career. I read recently that the age by which a parent and child need to know what the child plans to do with his or her life in order to meet those goals successfully is ten. That’s right, in order for a child to get into a top school so as to get on the path to med school, etc., with the level of competition and overpopulation and demand on resources is currently…ten.

    Sadly, the rest of the world has or is catching up to our competitiveness, and in many cases is surpassing us. Look at China, India, Brazil…

    So, not only have we destroyed our ability to enjoy nature and play, we have led the rest of the world down this path as well, all in the interest of “progress” and prosperity.

    In some ways I think the economic downturn is a blessing. I see evidence of it in my own family. Instead of shopping trips and walks around the city spending money, my husband’s kids come to our house and we hang out and make dinner and talk around the dining room table for hours. David and his son are making beer together from scratch (his son is 25, I should add!). But it takes more. We realized just recently that our family hikes are limited to about two or three times per year, with some fun play time on the beach. We have committed to taking them on hikes, as we hike nearly daily. Why not “teach” them in the best possible way?

    We are the stewards of this planet, and our generations are sadly, in general, much closer to nature because we used to spend our time out playing, discovering, wondering. If we can’t teach young kids to appreciate these things, who will?

    I sense our own laziness has gotten in the way. People are tired from working, and, as you say, running back and forth to and from sports practices. But nature invigorates and energy produces energy. What could be more relaxing than a sunset walk after a long day? Certainly not “Celebrity Apprentice,” or whatever people are watching.

    Every so often I see a family walk past our house in Berkeley, or, I see a family riding its bikes past our front door on their way to Grizzly Peak. I know in many ways I live in an ideal environment and unusual culture–Berkeley. But this gives me hope that other young families are doing the same. Simplicity is becoming more attractive to people, as technology, politics, the economy, careers, and just about ever facet of life gets more complicated.

    What we have to remember is that thinking about nature is one thing, but getting outside and putting our feet on the ground and sitting in the grass is quite another. We have done a lot of thinking. We are concerned and we recycle and turn lights off and use tote bags instead of plastics or paper. We ARE getting there. But we need to get out of our heads and connect.

    While I agree wholeheartedly with your entire post, I agree with two simple words most: GO OUTSIDE!

    It’s that easy. Almost as easy as turning on the TV.

    Thank you, Joanna! I hope that people read this post and take its message into their hearts, especially parents. We really have to start thinking about what we stand for as an “elder culture.” We have to start taking the lead.

    1. Namaste`Lauren! Thanks so much for entering and adding to this conversation. It is so heartwarming to see children playing outside in groups and far too rare a sight these days. Soccer moms have been taking a heavy hit…I heard an author being interviewed that blamed soccer moms as a cause of global warming! The insanity began in Little League and there were no female coaches or administrators in the early days. It takes a very brave mom to stand up to a coach and state that she thinks scheduling a practice on a holiday is over the top. Guess who did? Yep. Me. And I was told if you want your son to play basketball, he’ll be at every practice. My son loved to play. I got him to practice. It takes a whole village, not one lone voice to change the system which includes keeping bullies out of coaching! My intent is to get parents talking to one another and to their friends about this. If you’re a grandparent, aunt, uncle,reading this maybe you’ll broach the subject. Having kids in sports these days creates an unhealthy lifestyle and the whole family pays. Perhaps we’re all paying.I’ll have to Google to see if I can find the book about soccer moms. It’s time to go to a higher denominator, truly, not just mouth the words, “It’s only a game.” Have fun on your hikes!

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