Where have all the cowboys gone?

There was a time when you couldn’t walk through the neighbourhood without almost being knocked flat off your feet by children on bikes, trikes and scooters, or young lassies playing beds, kick-the-can or follow-the-leader, or swinging from the nearest lamp-post, or the boys as the sheriff and his deputies galloping off into the next estate or two to go chasing after the ‘baddies’.

Granted it still goes on, but not to the same extent, in that we live now in a different world. A world where some children stay glued to the television or the X-Box or the computer, indoors at play. A world when a stranger is now indeed a stranger and you dare not let your children out of your sight for fear of the consequence.

Soon the children will be well and truly settled back into school, there is the business of

after-school curricula, sports, field trips and the like and by the time little Johnny or Jemima trundles home after a ‘hard day’, playing outside is the last thing on their mind when plonking themselves in front of CBBC seems the easier option.

With the school ‘extras’, which of course are to be welcomed, there lies the danger of play becoming too structured. Its opposite, unstructured playtime, where caution is thrown to the wind, has become an endangered species.

While it’s perfectly okay to value achievement and competition, do we really believe that the more extra-curricular activities our children have, the better off they are?

Ask any parent how their child is doing and

they won’t say: “Great — he or she plays at home five times a week.’’

By over-scheduling our children, not only are we eliminating unstructured playtime, but perhaps we’re setting them up for stress, anxiety, and even, dare I say it, depression. If you asked any adult to schedule in football, swimming, an art class, girl scouts, and a science field trip after their day at work, they would call you crazy.

It is important for parents to place a priority on play and unscheduled time for their children. It can be an unstructured play date where the kids take all the blankets to the back garden to make forts. Or an evening after dark where their friends come with flashlights to play. Or maybe a group that gets together for an afternoon treasure hunt.

The ideas are endless — I leave those up to your own wonderful imaginations — but what it all comes down to in the end is that children just need time to be children. They deserve the same joy and freedom of playing that we enjoyed growing up.

This doesn’t mean we should eliminate organised sports and activities from our children’s lives. But we do need to caution ourselves against

over-scheduling. We need to be confident in allowing our children to use their imaginations, play their own games, and negotiate their own rules.

This is the joy of play. By definition, play is purposeless and all-consuming. And, most important, it’s fun.

As my psychologist friend from Magherafelt says: “It’s not the kids with skinned knees that I worry about, it’s the ones without a scratch.”

Unstructured playtime is valuable, he says. Children need time to round up their peers, play kick-the-can, or whatever today’s equivalent is, even scrape their knees. The job of parents is to make unstructured playtime a priority — and be there to supply the Band Aid afterwards.

As for us adults, taking time to play feels like a guilty pleasure — a distraction from ‘real’ work and life.

But, as Dr Stuart Brown illustrates in his thought-provoking book Play (Penguin), play is anything but trivial. It is a biological drive as integral to our health as sleep or nutrition.

In fact, our ability to play throughout all our life is the single most important factor in deter- mining our success and happiness.

Now — out you go and play to your heart’s content.

As for me, well my three children are all grown up. As are their peers. The street where I live is virtually empty now, devoid of children.

And the silence is deafening.

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