Whatever Happened to Play?

As soon as the ribbon was cut, they rushed onto the playground and began to play. What a joy it was to watch the children run from one piece of equipment to another, eager to try it all out. As our congregation dedicated a new playground several weeks ago, I thought to myself, “My, how free play has changed in four generations.” My father’s childhood world was vast. He was free to walk miles to the fishing hole and the sledding hill. As a young boy he helped out a local farmer by accompanying him to the big city of Philadelphia to sell produce.


The clearest memories of my childhood involved summer play. From second grade on I would leave home after breakfast on my bike, baseball glove on my handlebar. As long as I came home for lunch and supper and before dark, I was allowed to roam wherever I wanted. Living in a small town, I’d ride to the school for a summer recreation program, play baseball and touch football in vacant lots, and ride to the candy store and the grocery store.

When my own children were growing up, they lived in a village along Lake Michigan where there was similar but more limited freedom. They were allowed to walk to school, ride their bikes to the tennis courts and wander downtown, but the beach was off-limits unless accompanied by a parent. There were no cell phones, but no one seemed to worry too much, except for that one time when Sarah didn’t come home from school, and we finally found her eating ice cream in her friend’s restaurant. When we moved to Grand Rapids, their roaming area became more restricted, but they still walked alone to school.

Today my five year-old grandson lives in Sarasota, Florida where he is not permitted to leave his yard without a parent present. In fact, my daughter says that the police in Sarasota are even cracking down on parents who let their eight- and nine-year-old children play unsupervised in the nearby park.


Whatever happened to play? The typical radius of play in many parts of our world has shrunk from five miles to five hundred feet in the past hundred years. In the diagram above, David Derbyshire shows in a 2007 article how children have lost the right to roam in four generations by chronicling the radius of play in the Thomas family of Sheffield, England. How ironic that in a time when globalization has expanded our world to amazing proportions, the “free play” worlds of many of our children are growing smaller.

The result is that our children are losing their connection to the natural world. When I was a kid we had to devise our own games. We made miniature golf courses, built forts and tunnels, climbed trees, and constructed bridges over creeks. I was always outside and have no memories of watching TV until I was in junior high school. Walking to and from school was always an adventure.

Today parents drive their children to school. It’s amazing how few children walk themselves to the elementary school a block from our house. After school, kids stay inside watching TV or playing videos games, participate in after school programs until their parents are done work or are taken to sports practices, music lessons, etc. When children do go outside, their boundaries are small, and we encourage them to participate in structured activities that leave little opportunity for free play, improvisation and creativity.

An “outdoor childhood” has ended for many of today’s children. The reasons for our children’s lack of free play in natural settings are many. The world is more dangerous, or so we believe it to be. Therefore, parents keep their children much closer to them. Child abductions, although rare, are real. Increased traffic is hazardous for children walking alone.

Even if our children are playing outside, other children are kept inside, so there is no one with whom to play. Many children don’t live in places where nature is close by. And the less children interact with nature, the more content they are to stay inside the four walls of their room where the latest electronic devices are readily accessible and addictive.

Experts today tell us that the consequences of our shrinking radius of play are significant. Because nature has a soothing and stress-relieving effect upon people, the lack of exposure to the natural world may put our children’s mental health at risk. We also know that people are better adjusted if they can get out into the countryside or parks where they can walk in the woods, pick wildflowers and skip stones in the lake. In addition, it has been shown that hospital patients heal faster and use fewer painkillers when they have a view of nature from their bed.

Whatever happened to play? And why should the church be concerned about the radius and spirituality of children’s play?

• Unstructured outdoor play is a sacred experience.

In the prophet Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom (11:8) we read, “The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp (cobra), and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.” In Job 41:5, the writer refers to Leviathan, the sea monster, and says, “Will you play with it as a bird, or will you put it on leash for your girls?” And in Zechariah 8:5, the prophet refers to the future of Jerusalem by saying, “Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.” God’s majesty and presence are revealed in nature in ways that inspire play and keep us close to the divine.

• Jesus lived much of his life outdoors, and many of his images, stories and parables relate to the natural world.

To illustrate his teachings Jesus used common images from nature such as lilies, birds, seeds, farmland, fields of grain, grapevines, mountains, deserts, rivers, sand, eagles, water, fishing, soil, rocks, storms and trees. If we are never exposed to nature, it is more difficult to understand Jesus’ stories as well as the fact that we are co-creators and co-players with God.

Churches fortunate enough to have green space can use it creatively to nurture spiritual growth and outreach. Community gardens have become a very popular way for congregations to reach out to their neighbors as well as encourage church members of all ages to connect with the earth and grow the kingdom as they grow food.

Ponds, trees and grassy areas are more conducive to peaceful meditation than macadam. Some churches have elaborate playgrounds, skate parks, or even soccer and baseball fields that are open for community use. Outdoor labyrinths and gardens are also a gift to church members and the community.

• Church sponsored canoe, camping and hiking trips are as important to our spiritual growth as mission trips to the inner city, poor rural areas or other countries.

National and international mission trips encourage church members and friends to enlarge their borders as well as make a difference in places where needs are great. However, there is also a place for church sponsored trips that focus on play and our connection with God and the natural world.

• We have a great treasure in our church camps.

The spiritual lives of many of our children and youth have been nurtured and formed through camping. There is something about leaving home, living and playing in community while close to nature, focusing on our faith and deepening relationships that has transformed generations of young Christians. God speaks to us in a unique way through creation, especially as we sit around the campfire at night and hear stories of faith, courage and hope.

Church camps may not have all the bells and whistles of sports or specialty camps. Yet I have no doubt that more lives are changed at church camps than at any other camps. It’s no coincidence that many of my colleagues felt that initial call to ministry around the fire bowl at senior high church camp. “Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go, Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.”

Whatever happened to play? It’s never too late to rediscover it.


2 thoughts on “Whatever Happened to Play?

  1. Amen! I ranged up to five miles from the house including walking home from high school. My grandkids stay in the yard unless with a parent. Fortunately their parents take them to many outdoor places. They aren’t school age yet, but I hope their Mom and Dad continue to get them into the great outdoors.

  2. Hi Laurie,
    Thank you for sharing the significance of Mission trips and Church camps. The re-connecting with the earth, nature and people is so vital to making us more fully human, and to be better adjusted to living in community,
    David Nellist

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