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I heard a wonderful thing while I was out on the tennis court the other day. It was the sound of children’s laughter. On the court behind me, a brother and sister were playing tennis. Well, it wasn’t as much a game of tennis as it was batting and chasing after the ball.
“Run, Damon, run. The ball is right behind you,” Damon’s sister would yell as a tennis ball flew through the air. Following that would be a ripple of laughter as her 8-year-old brother galloped across the court, dashing as fast as his wiry legs would carry him, grinning all the way. He’d scoop up the balls and lob them back over the net, where his sister would gallop off in the other direction, to start the process all over again. They teased back and forth, but mostly the two of them laughed as they played together. They were having such a good time, it made me laugh as well.
What I appreciated was that their game wasn’t about perfecting a swing, or learning how to serve. It wasn’t focused on winning or losing. It was simply about having fun, about being outdoors on a brisk winter’s day simply goofing off. After a time, the children’s parents joined them, back from a walk around the park, and they all took turns stepping on to the court to play against their dad. They appeared new to the sport (and as an avid tennis player, I am glad for that), but what struck me as magical was the fact that they were all engaged in doing something together, as a family.
Does that happen at your house on a regular basis? I was talking to a preschool director recently who said that as much as she appreciates the value of today’s technology, it worries her, too. She sees how often kids are left (literally) to their own devices, spending hours on iPads, computers, cell phones, or game systems, entertained not by another person but by electronic imagery. Even when families are together under one roof, it seems too easy to squirrel away into our private cocoons, my son on his X-box, myself on the computer.
It’s so easy to pacify our kids, to quiet them down by putting them in front of a screen so we can work or spend time doing something besides tending to their needs. And a little of that is okay. But we can lose sight of the value of play; those activities that engage a child’s imagination or prompts them to run and get exercise instead of being holed up inside.
In this issue, we talk a lot about the benefits of summer camp for that reason, it gives kids the opportunity to be introduced to new activities that might help them uncover and nourish untapped abilities. I believe that’s hugely beneficial. But what this family reminded me wasn’t just the value of play, but of playing together. Trying out a new sport or game can be a great leveler for families. It’s good for kids to see their parents as less than accomplished at a task. All too often, we are usually the experts at activities we do with our kids. Playing a sport we’re unfamiliar with gives them a chance to see us learning something new, maybe even see us falter or fail before we begin to catch on to what’s required.
What’s more, it’s fun to play a sport with your child and see them, over time, gain mastery of it. David Thornton talks about that in his essay this month on skateboarding. It’s a sport he’s long loved and is now gaining a different kind of appreciation for it as he helps his son master his board. We love to play ping pong at our house. When we first started playing, my son was so little he could barely see over the table. To reach it, we’d let him stand on top of the recycling bin. Nonetheless, he would gamely try to return the ball, and over time, he grew taller — and better.
Today, he rules the table. If I'm lucky, I get to win a match now and then. But it’s still fun to play together, to hear our own laughter, to experience the give and take that comes when you’re engaged with your kids. To get out from behind the kaleidoscopic world of the Interweb — and play.