We had nine little boys on the beach this week. Nine! And no TV, no organized games, and hardly a toy in sight beyond the old buckets and spades which live in the house and a few surfboards. Mostly these have been scavenged from the beach: the tide brings them in after a long weekend. So how on earth did we manage to entertain nine boys, ranging in age from eleven to four?
We didn't suggest, direct or help. We did not instruct. Apart from feeding the little monkeys (often and plentifully - the beach makes hungry boys), smearing sunblock twice a day and administering first aid (see previous post!) when needed, we hardly spoke to them. What terrible parents we are!
Kelli and I sat one afternoon on the beach, chatting with one eye on the kids in the distance. For hours, they played. Their toys? Sand, rocks, some wooden boards they had found washed up, a few sticks. The game? It was hard to tell. The game seemed to evolve fluidly. One moment they were building a dam to block the stream which runs on to the beach. Excellent use was made of their found flotsam. Next, there was a pitched battle with two teams. Sand balls were made and pelted to knock down the opposing team's wood and stick structures. Occasionally some small person would be hit (accidentally) with sand, but we mummies did not rescue or chasten. We watched. Invariably, the small person would be dusted off by a bigger boy and the game would continue with NO TEARS SHED. Then it evolved again: Running in the wet sand, pulling smaller boys on boogey boards with great speed. Then races. Then back to the dam, with a different plan. And so on. There was no point where a game stopped and a new one started. It was all one long, complex, intricate Game.
Kelli and I kept thinking we should call them in to eat. Lunch was ready! But we couldn't bring ourselves to stop the flow of activity on the beach. We were interested in that flow. We could see the personalities of the kids coming out in their play: The Smallest General In Charge, The Engineers, The Onlooker, The Buddies, The Protector, The One In The Way, The Legal Advisor.
We could see the evolution of Rules: Absolutely No Throwing Sand! has been a rule as long as the kids know themselves, and it was changed by the kids to Only Throw Sand To Knock Down Structures. And if you get hit accidentally, well, shit happens. Move on.
Absolutely No Going In The Sea Without A Grownup! is another rule, but the kids were on the wet sand in one inch of water and only glanced at us to see if that was okay. It didn't mess with their flow, at all. Would they have gone on to the wet sand if we had not been on the beach watching? I wonder. The Water Rule is a serious one. It's THE RULE in Mayaro, where the sea is fraught with undertows and man-o-war jellyfish. I don't think they would have. One child was Permanently Uninvited For Ever once for breaking that rule, and the kids know it.
So how do kids learn to play like this? Is it learned? I believe that basic rules help play to happen: Do Not Hurt Others (throwing sand or other missiles), Do Not Court Danger (going in the sea). Kids need a few rules and they need them early so that they become ingrained in their personality. But too many rules can interfere with fluid development of play and creativity. We have all seen the parent who hovers, instructing at every moment, encouraging, teaching. This is good, but there comes a point when the parent must back off. There comes a point where kids need time and space, uninstructed, to figure it out for themselves.
Where is this point? If we had been hoverers, Luke would maybe not have stepped on that rusty nail and hurt his foot. But if we had said "Don't play with that flotsam, it's DANGEROUS!" would the afternoon have proceeded so well? Can we pat ourselves on the back and say, "Thank goodness for tetanus shots", and leave our kids to their own devices? Will it be all "Lord Of The Flies" in no time? It sure doesn't seem to be, and we have been doing this beach trip, with basically the same group of mums and kids, for.... over eight years. Gosh!
What ARE the ground rules? At what point in a baby's life do they begin to learn to play within Rules? When is it too late? Are we taking away this free play when we structure kids' lives around school and other activities? How much structure does a child need? Was our observed play better because usually the kids' lives are structured, and they had been released from that for the week? I wonder, I wonder....
I believe that our kids' free and uninstructed play will help them to excel in later life. They will be able to deal with sudden changes of plan and whacks with a misguided sandball. They will have creative solutions to sudden crises. They will know when to push the rules. They will know when to glance at Authority to see where the wind blows. They will know how to work with different personalities. They will get that everyone is different.
And they will be able to make use of flotsam, avoiding rusty nails at all costs.