Friday, May 28, 2021

Childhood Comes Alive in Those Places Adults Don't Really Care About

I grew up in many homes. Our family moved often, on average once every couple of years, as my father pursued his career as an engineer; from Missouri to Connecticut, from Texas to South Carolina, from Greece to Oregon. Each place we had a home, sometimes moving to another one within the same city after a year or two. But when I think of the homes I grew up in, I also include the other homes I knew almost as well as my own: the homes of neighbors and relatives where I spent enough time that they became a part of me.

In my own homes, kids were allowed run of the house, although we generally avoided the living room. In other people's homes, the living rooms were strictly off limits. More than one of these homes featured plastic covers on the living room furniture, only to be removed when more important guests, adult guests, were expected. In some homes there were other kinds of rooms that were off limits, like grown-up bedrooms or workshops, or, in a couple rare cases, a home office. In contrast, kids' bedrooms were always free play zones, as were garages, basements, and attics. And these were the places to which we children would gravitate.

And then, of course, there was the outdoors. Most of the homes I grew up in had rules about outdoors as well. There were gardens to keep out of, certain trees that weren't for climbing, and it was important to know which flowers we could pick and which we were to be left alone. Generally speaking, however, we knew that the farther away we were from the house itself, the more free we felt. Backyards tended to offer more freedom than the more public front of the house. Side yards or alleyways were often our favorite places.

Looking back I can see that the thread that tied all of these child-friendly (a phrase that didn't exist in my youth) places together was that they were places where the adults more or less left us alone.

As outdoor learning guru and founder of Early Childhood Outdoors Jan White puts it in her session at Teacher Tom's Play Summit, "The places where much of my formative play happened were places adults didn't really care about." 

This is true for me as well, as it was for everyone I knew growing up. The adults left us alone in these places because they weren't worried that we would break or damage or soil anything, or rather, anything important. As children we might not have understood this, but when we were in the attic or horsing around in the basement, it wasn't the absence of the adults so much as the fact that they were simply more relaxed, more permissive, more laissez faire. We knew that if we broke something in the living room, there would be stern words and punishments, whereas the response to breakage in the garage was to hand us a broom. In the living room there were constant reminders to keep our feet off the furniture or to "be careful" around this or that, but in our places we were free to engage in what Jan calls "formative play." 

The right kind of environment, Jan has found, is a "scruffy one," a place "full of stuff, time, and possibilities."

As children, when we didn't find this kind of environment at home, wherever that was at the moment, we, without really thinking about it, began to roam in search of it. I'm thinking in particular of one home we sometimes visited as guests. These people didn't have children and so the whole of indoors was a place the adults cared about. Even the manicured gardens were off limits. Fortunately, the house backed onto a small woods, so, of course, this is where my brother and I played. 

We live in a different sort of world today, but children still need places to play that adults don't really care about. "The curriculum that matters is what's inside the child," Jan says, and these places, these scruffy, uncared for places are where it flourishes best. Childhood comes alive in those places adults don't really care about.


To hear my entire interview with Jan White, please join us at Teacher Tom's Play Summit. What if the whole world understood the power of trusting children with the freedom to play, to explore their world, to ask and answer their own questions? What if everyone respected their right to learn in their own way, on their own time? What if we remembered that children must have their childhoods and that means playing, and lots of it? Teacher Tom's Play Summit  is a free, online conference that takes place June 20-25. Click here to get your free pass to all 24 of our incredible sessions with early childhood and parenting experts and thought leaders from around the world. Every one of these people are professionals who have placed children first. You will walk away from this event transformed, informed, challenged, and inspired to create a world that respects children and sets them free to learn and grow. Together we can, as presenter Raffi sings, "Turn this world around!"

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