How Adult's Ruin Kids Play
Over the years, my soul has been stirred by many things. I have been fortunate enough to marvel at the Pyramids of Giza, to witness royal parades in the heart of London, to be part of a water festival in Thailand and to scuba dive on some of the world's greatest shipwrecks.
But of all the things that really make my heart sing, none come even close to the simple act of watching children play on their own, without adults guiding or interrupting them.
You see, we grown ups often ruin their games - inadvertently of course but still, we do. Take for example a game of "keeping's off", I witnessed during my last trip to Vanuatu.
Children of both sexes and ranging from 3 to 10 are playing with a tennis ball. A dozen bodies of different sizes are running around, each at their own pace on their own path and seemingly at random. Yet they all blend together, into a single fluid being.
It's like watching a choreographed dance where equality rules. No-one dominates, nobody is left out; there is no bumping and crashing nobody and there is no complaining. There are just cries of joy as every child who wants the ball gets to have it for a fair time. The older kids bounce the ball as they run and the younger ones just run with it until they pass it to an eager teammate.
The youngest of them simply runs around in circles, his arms flailing above his head. He shows absolutely no interest in the ball at all, he's just happy to be out there "playing" with these older kids.
The game goes for what seems like hours but is probably only 15 minutes but in that time, I learn about movement, coordination and unselfish self-expression. I seethe joy that comes from fulfilling the needs of others. I see democracy, in its most ideal form.
What strikes me the most however is how lucky the kids are that no other adults are paying attention.
Why is being ignored lucky?
Because too often I have seen games just like this ruined here at home by well-meaning adults who intervened - either for the sake of safety, or because they though that someone was being treated unfairly. Or even sometimes because they believed that they knew a better way for the kids to have fun. Now THAT'S presumptuous.
Even just attentive adults can ruin the games of children without intervening. You see, children see us as enforcers of safety, solvers of conflicts, and audiences for whining; and this perception is somewhat self-fulfilling as children will then often act unsafely, squabble and whine because they know the adults are there to regulate their behaviour.
I often think back to my times in Vanuatu and remember the best games. The kids there are left to their own devices when playing. I mean, adults are always around (family is the most important thing to the Ni-Vanuatu), but they are not there to supervise - they know the kids can look after themselves. And the play I see them engage in is happy, fair and fun.
So yes, sometimes it is best to really leave them to sort things out themselves - play requires self-control and an obvious presence of adults can lead children to relinquish that very control - and that is a skill they really need to become effective people.