Ah, childhood. That small pocket of life spent learning, growing, and hopefully spending some time making a mud pie or two. Things have changed a lot since I was a child back in the 1800’s. Ok, so maybe I’m not quite THAT old, but still, things sure have changed, even in recent years. A few things still need to change.
Kids Should Be Allowed To Be Kids
For starters, technology is more prevalent and seems to have replaced a lot of the active play that comes naturally to kids. Sure, we had Atari game consoles in my day (don’t laugh you Xboxers), if not at our own home, then at our friend’s house that we had access to. We also watched our fair share of TV. What I don’t remember though is relying on that technology to an almost addictive level. Technology has permeated so much of our children’s lives that it’s difficult to go a day without encountering it. Kids now have smartphones that invite their attention when they’re bored. Even when doing schoolwork kids often times use school-provided laptops to complete their assignments. Technology isn’t a negative thing, but it seems to be taking the place of good, old-fashioned outdoor play.
What’s so great about good old-fashioned outdoor play? Dirt.
Yes, dirt is a wonderful thing! Unlike Play-Doh or finger paints, it has minerals and helpful microbes in it that can actually improve our health. Studies have shown exposure to dirt boosts immunity, reduces allergies, and can even improve our mood. Of course, it’s still recommended kids wash their hands on a regular basis, but our over-sterilized environments that use hand sanitizers and antibiotics in abundance can actually be keeping kids from exposure to helpful, natural properties in nature, aka, dirt.
Besides being allowed to get dirty, kids need to be encouraged to, wait for it, be KIDS. When they’re not using technology, kids these days seem to be hopping from scheduled activity to activity and working hard on advanced classes to get ahead and stand out from the crowd in today’s competitive world. Sometimes I wonder if there’s enough time for kids to just be kids. It’s almost as if it’s wasting time to explore and have free play unless it serves some purpose.
Beyond getting dirty and having unstructured play time, it’s vitally important for kids to be around grown-ups who accept them for who they are, dirty hands, warts, and all.
I was blessed to have a grandmother who encouraged me to be a kid. Through her acceptance, I felt I had room to grow, make mistakes, and to just be me. She had a beautiful home that, by some standards, could be considered a museum. She had built-in shelves that lined her family room walls with breakable collectibles adorning them. She had pretty furniture pieces and glass lamps sitting atop of tables. There were crystal candy dishes and little figurines within a short person’s reach on many of those tables. Still, she found ways to let me be curious and move about her home without me feeling like a bull in a china shop.
I remember she would let me cover her sewing table with a blanket and “drive” it through the kitchen. It had wheels on the bottom of it that rolled nicely along her linoleum floor. What a treat that must have been for her while she was trying to make dinner! She also let my best friend and me turn her sewing room into a haunted house. We would gather all of the blankets we could find and basically turn the room into a giant fort. When we turned on the light there would be an eerie glow and lots of spooky tunnels to explore. We were also “encouraged” to play outside, probably when Grandma needed her kitchen to be a kitchen and not a road, and we spent a lot of that time making mud pies and getting dirty.
The funny thing is, I only remember breaking one thing at Grandma’s house. When I told her what had happened I was very apologetic and promised to be more careful. I could see the momentary disappointment in her face as she looked at the broken pieces of the ceramic figurine. But then, I could see she understood. She knew I didn’t do it on purpose. But, more than that, she knew that the most important things in life aren’t things. People are. She loved her pretty knickknacks and decorations and was proud of the home she’d built with my grandpa, but she loved me more. She knew I respected her home because I respected her, but she also knew I was a kid…and kids make lots of mistakes.
Like the rest of us, kids learn from their mistakes. When their mistakes are met with guidance and understanding, it opens them up to live their life without fear and with a feeling of confidence. They’re not constantly afraid to mess up.
I was also in environments as a kid where I felt stifled and almost ashamed of my natural childish urges to play and explore. It was if something was wrong with me or I was a bother when I was only following my child-like nature. Those environments brought out my shyness and made me feel anxious. At the time, I didn’t realize that I wasn’t “bad” and that there was really nothing wrong with me. These negative feelings can really harm a kid’s self esteem. Sometimes we even carry these shameful emotions into adulthood just because someone wasn’t quite sure how to interact with us when we were kids.
Not everyone can be as patient as my grandma, but I hope every child has someone in their life who accepts them just as they are and lets them run, play, get dirty and even break a few things in the process. After all, we’re only a kid once.