This blog is being written from the perspective of a parent and not at all meant to be interpreted under the guise of the Physical Education teacher.
If you know me at all you know that I work numerous jobs to make ends meet. I have three children who eat lots of fruits and vegetables and that costs real money! One of my many jobs is being a birthday party activity leader. This entails creating games and activities for large groups of children. I have a ton of equipment to use and a beautiful gym to run the games in. The parents of the party usually pick the games and activities for their children. I get an email telling me the time, date, age, amount of children, and games that the family chose to play. I have learned more about children during these parties than I have teaching in 10 years. Let me explain a little more.
The area that the gym is located is truly a diverse mix of people. I never know what race or origin of people will come through the door. What’s amazing about children is no matter what their ethnicity or culture they all want to play. I am not saying that I am color blind or that culture is insignificant. What I am saying is that ALL children love playing games. This is a universal truth I believe in without a doubt in my mind. It is one of the reasons that I believe recess and Physical Education are so important to a child. Playing games is a great leveler. Race, gender, and SES tend to take a back seat to skill and joy. I don’t believe just playing games will make the world kumbayah but it is one of the best ways of truly integrating people who don’t look and act like each other.
I arrive at the complex 15 minutes before the party and get all the equipment ready for the activities that the family chose. At the start of the party, I have some sort of easy 3-5 minute activity that has no rules so that when more kids trickle in they can get active every time. I make sure to find the birthday child and ask them what games they want to play when their parents are around them. This gives me a true evaluation of what they want to do. Some kids tell me exactly what was in the email while others change their minds. I believe strongly that a child should choose the games they want to play at their own birthday party!!
The other day a group of 3-4-year-olds came rolling in the gym. They did not speak English as their first language. The activity written down was capture the flag. There was no way that 3-4-year-olds can play the game let alone if they couldn’t understand my directions! I set up a quick scooter activity and the kids were ignoring me and just riding them around. This is where my understanding of children and fun kicked in. I brought out jump ropes and starting pulling the kids around the gym. They were having a blast. They didn’t want rigid activities. They just wanted to play. Good old-fashioned free play. I brought out hula hoops and we threw them around and made pathways to jump and hop through. The parents came off the bleachers and helped pull the kids and interact with them. The children had a blast!!
As adults, we manage almost every aspect of our child’s life. We tell them when to wake up and when to sleep. When to brush their teeth and what they can eat. Some of this is necessary while some are helicoptering. I am not exactly sure where the line is for me personally. What I do know is that play is an activity that doesn’t always need to be rigidly set up. Sometimes putting out balls and hoops is the greatest thing we can do for our kids. Their imaginations take over and they create activities that you would never have thought of.
Our kids play time and free time is over planned and regimented. They go to sports, gymnastics, art classes, or tech clubs. Everywhere they go an adult has a plan for them. Sometimes we need to just let go. If you want to learn more about free play check out Dr. Peter Gray’s website.
Another part of doing these hour long activities with children that I have never met before is that I have to create a bond or a connection with them super quickly. This is a skill that is not as difficult than you may imagine. How do you get kids to like and trust you in five minutes? The key is simple. Smile. Have fun. Tell a joke. Make fun of yourself. People want to be around happy positive people. Kids are no different. As soon as the birthday child walks through the door I shake their hand and tell them to call me Justin. This alleviates most of the power differential in our ages. I then do something comedic like shaking their hand for 30 seconds too long all the while telling them to stop so we can starts.
If you want to truly learn about children go to a party where there is little to no structure. Watch children interact with each other in an authentic and natural way. It will shed a whole new light on how and what they can do. I have learned more about children an hour at a time than I have in my ten years of teaching school.