Guest Blogger – Playing Ball With No Adults Around

A few weeks ago, Mike Lanza, founder and chief play officer of Playborhood, a blog that helps parents give their children a life of neighborhood play, dropped a comment, which prompted me to write to him. The founder and CEO of five software/Internet companies, Mike holds way too many degrees from Stanford University – an MA and BA in Economics, an MBA, and an MA in Education. He lives in Palo Alto, CA, with his wife and three boys (5-1/2, 2-1/2, and 10 months).

Here’s an interesting post he’s written about the importance of playing without parental interference.

Playing Ball With No Adults Around
by Mike Lanza
posted originally here.

Many of my best childhood memories involve playing pickup games with no adults around. Yes, I played organized baseball – Little League, for instance – but those experiences simply don’t compare with pickup games with my neighborhood buddies.

I would argue that pickup ball is both more fun and better for children’s social and intellectual development. It’s also more inclusive, or egalitarian.

In this article, I’ll discuss each of these advantages of “pickup ball,” and then conclude by analyzing why it’s vanishing from American childhoods.

Social Development
Think about all the social tasks you had to perform in playing a pickup game that kids of today don’t have to for their organized sports games:

Decide What to Play: There’s no “schedule” of pickup games – they’re ad hoc by definition. So, children have to decide on the game, and that’s unavoidably a social process.

Recruit Players: Organized baseball takes a minimum of 18 players. It’s never the case that 18 kids just show up in a neighborhood looking for something to play. Depending on what game is played, two to six kids might be the minimum. In fact, most of the time, kids need to get creative to find enough kids to play to make a real game.

Decide Where to Play: When and who’s playing can affect where the kids decide to play. “Should we play in _____’s backyard? The street? The nearby school field that has a backstop?” More negotiations are in order here.

Improvise Rules: Which field the kids decide on and how many kids are playing usually necessitates improvised rules. “What’s a home run?” If each team has only three players in the field, perhaps the foul line should be moved. “How many bases can a runner advance on an overthrow?” “Can runners steal bases?” Kids need to decide on these and other rules each game, depending on circumstances.

Implement the Rules: “Was that a fair ball?” “Is s/he safe or out?” In pickup games, kids have to work out these issues on their own.
Decide How to Conclude the Game: Most pickup baseball games don’t end after nine innings, and pretty much all games that are timed in their organized forms (e.g. basketball, football) are not timed when no adult referees are around. Thus, kids have to decide when the game will end. Remember suggestions like these? – “The first team to 10 wins, win by two.” “Next inning’s the last.” Or, how about my favorite? – “Let’s play until we can’t see the ball anymore…”
Balancing the Desire to Win With Other Objectives: Certainly , winning has always been very important to all children in pickup games, but kids in pickup games must constantly calibrate their behavior to take into account other important objectives such as “being liked” or “being able to arrange another game tomorrow.” When kids themselves decide who’s safe and who’s out, or how hard to play when your team is already up by eight runs, they have a lot to consider. For instance, it’s pretty stupid to push hard to get your player ruled “safe” if you’re already up by eight runs and kids on the other side seem to be having a bad time out there.

Intellectual Development
The legendary child development theorist Jean Piaget wrote about how children develop moral reasoning through their independent game playing in ”The Moral Judgment of the Child.” In the course of growing up playing marbles, early 20th century Swiss children moved beyond a state of “moral realism,” in which they just accept rules without understanding the need for them or the logic behind them. As they played games where they encountered new unforeseen situations, they came to their own understanding of why rules are actually needed. They grappled with issues of fairness, equity, and the administrative cost of creating and applying new rules.

Piaget argued that experiences like this play a vital role in helping children grow to a more mature stage of moral development.

It’s quite possible that children who never have deep experience deciding all these issues never develop beyond that moral reasoning state where rules are accepted as given. In an excellent essay called ”The Organization Kid,” David Brooks, currently a New York Times columnist and Lehrer News Hour commentator, argues that elite college students of today devote a tremendous amount of energy toward working within a set of rules while barely, if ever, questioning the rules themselves.

“It’s very rare to get a student to challenge anything or to take a position that’s counter to what the professor says.” Robert Wuthnow, a Princeton sociologist, lamented, “They are disconcertingly comfortable with authority. That’s the most common complaint the faculty has of Princeton students. They’re eager to please, eager to jump through whatever hoops the faculty puts in front of them, eager to conform.”

These kids perform fabulously on tests, but they have gaping holes in intellectual abilities that tests don’t measure. What is fair and just? What’s a better widget? What’s a better way to do something? Questions like these aren’t on the SAT or AP exams, but it’s pretty difficult to argue that answering them well has nothing to do with intellectual development. It horrifies me to think that we’re raising a generation of kids who have scant ability to think outside the box, or to question the box itself…

As I mentioned before, pickup games are chronically in need of players, so kids must constantly find bodies to play. This fact creates a built-in bias toward egalitarianism among kids.

Our rule in our neighborhood was, if you understood the basic concepts of the game and didn’t whine too much, we wanted you. We wanted Bobby, the mentally retarded kid across the street. We wanted David, the deaf kid down the block. We wanted any girl who wanted to play. We wanted little kids who could handle playing with us.

And we wanted them not only for today, but we wanted them to come back tomorrow and the day after. Thus, we cared a lot about whether each and every kid enjoyed playing. That meant that we would pitch slower to kids who weren’t as good. Sometimes we would let rules slide a bit – “OK, that’s a fair ball!” – to let them get a hit.

Sure, even given all this bending, we still wanted to win a great deal, but we balanced this need with the need to let the lesser athletes among us have a good time.

Why Are Pickup Games Going Away?
Notwithstanding all these great benefits, pickup games have largely vanished from our culture. In fact, most kids have never gotten together with other kids to organize a sports game on their own. Why is this?

Parents Delude Themselves That Their Child Can be a Superstar Athlete: Some people argue that organized sports are a better environment to hone athletic skills. While this opinion is not universal, for the purposes of this article, it is sufficient to state that most parents believe this. So, parents who place a high priority on having their kids achieve the highest level of skill possible favor organized sports over pickup games. To the extent that these parents’ goals are for their children to become professional athletes, they are largely delusional. There is practically zero chance that any given child will make a good living as a professional athlete.
Kids Stay Inside More: Far more children spend their free time inside in front of screens (videogames, computers, and TV) today than did so decades ago.
Parents Rarely Let Their Kids Outside on Their Own: Many parents are fearful of the risks of letting their children play outside on their own, so they rarely, if ever, let them do it. However, as I wrote in a previous article, kids who are driven around to organized activities are at greater risk of death than those who roam close to home. As for the concern about sports-related injuries, kids today are less likely than kids decades ago to break bones and are more likely to develop “overuse” injuries (e.g. torn rotator cuff) due to the shift from pickup sports to organized sports.

Parents Overmanage Their Kids’ Lives: Highly driven parents in America have developed a tendency to “overmanage” their children’s lives. Thus, most parents want to get directly involved in their kids’ sporting activities than just let them do it for themselves. I wrote an article about this phenomenon entitled, Why is it a Good Idea for Adults to Control Kids’ Sports?. As I say there, I think that parents’ time with their children would be better spent having quality family time at home rather than driving all around practically every day accommodating multiple sports team schedules.

18 thoughts on “Guest Blogger – Playing Ball With No Adults Around

  1. OK, this bothered me —

    We wanted Bobby, the men­tally retarded kid across the street. We wanted David, the deaf kid down the block. We wanted any girl who wanted to play.

    Wow, you took the mentally retarded kid, the deaf kid, and you even let *girls* play? How inclusive can you get?

    I have a bad feeling this is the way men in our major corporations think, too.

    Remember James Watt and his boast: “I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple!”

    There’s a subtle bias in this essay in the way the author uses the word “kids” (or “children”). He really means “boys”, but you don’t find that out until that sentence “We wanted any girl who wanted to play.” Then you realize that “kids” means “boys”, and girls are a separate category.

    The bias may be subtle, but it’s not trivial. It’s the same bias that caused car manufacturers to install air bags that are lethal to small women and children. The air bags were designed to be safe for “people”, which means full-grown men. Women and children are a separate category.


  2. As you know, you’re really swimming against the tide if you don’t “encourage” your child to sign up for lots of activities after school. When my son was little, he participated in some activities, but nothing like the kids around him, who went to pottery, swim class, tennis lessons — you know the drill.

    Frankly, I used to criticize him for mainlining his computer, for blobbing out with too many movies and video games, for playing too many board games with his friends. I don’t think I was entirely wrong to tell him that his time would be better spent picking up a book for at least an hour a day.

    But in the end, I think “down time” isn’t wasted time. Today he’s in the top ten percent of his university sophomore class. Moreover, he is a real individual: An observant Jew, a Chinese and philosophy major, a swimmer and karate black belt. He is interesting. How many people can you say that about?


  3. FedUpMom: I understand your point, but I think he’s talking about boys because he himself was a boy, and he’s talking about his own experiences. Notwithstanding his unfortunate use of the terminology of the day (“retarded”), I think his point is valid, and it’s a point also made very well in a book by Silken Laumann (Canadian Olympic rower) called Child’s Play. She claims that she did not participate in organized sports until her early teens, and that the kinds of unorganized activities mentioned by Lanza actually honed her athletic and social skills, skills which in her case did lead to success at a higher level. (Though the point is not that they need to lead to athletic success, but rather that they are important in so many other ways.)

    To some extent, I think we have to fault this generation of parents–and I include myself here–for not allowing our kids to play as we played, for enrolling them in so many organized extracurricular activities, for being so involved in how they spend their time. I’m as guilty as the next person, but one thing I did with my kids (twin girls) when they were young was to teach them to skip (jump rope), including running in and out of the ropes as we did as kids. I then taught them every skipping rhyme and call-in game I remembered from my childhood, and they loved it. We taught some neighbour children the skipping games too, and for a while it was a hit. But when they got older, it wasn’t something they tended to do at recess, for instance, because other kids weren’t doing it, and they didn’t want to seem different. At home, though, they still play these games, and I recently taught them a variation on Chinese jump rope that I played as a kid. They play it together in the back yard, but again, not with other kids.

    I do feel they are missing out on something by not playing these types of games on the playground at school. Jump rope games in particular are fantastic exercise, fun, not overly competitive, and relatively inclusive. Sadly, when jump rope began to be taught at the girls’ school in gym, it was taught as “fitness” jumping, the way adults are taught to jump rope for athletic training. I actually wrote to the teacher at the time, suggesting that kids did not need learn to learn it this way, that there were other more engaging ways. She was very defensive in her response, but she did try to incorporate more traditional jump rope games into the unit after that.


  4. FedUpMom – This was 35 or 40 years ago. The term “special needs” was nonexistent back then. “Mentally retarded” was it. Also, play was highly sex-segregated. That’s the way it was. To write about this differently is to deny the truth. Despite all these things, our neighborhood was more inclusive to everyone than almost every neighborhood today. Isolation, the norm of today, is not inclusion. It’s a tragedy…


  5. I agree with the inclusivity point. Our street “gang” included kids of different sexes and ages, and the games played ranged from traditional “boys” games (mostly ball hockey where I grew up), to gender-neutral games such as King’s Court, Capture the Flag, Kick the Can, etc, to the traditional girls games such as jump rope and Double Dutch. What was interesting was that older kids had to learn to tend to younger kids, finding roles for them etc. I remember that in some kind of football game we played, I (as a younger kid, and a girl to boot) was relegated to “steam-boat counter.” I don’t even remember what that really was, or its purpose, but I know that although it was a very small role, I had a lot of fun because I was being included.

    My kids and their friends still play games like British Bulldog, and Red Rover at school during recess, but street “gangs” (meant in a positive way) simply don’t exist anymore in our neighbourhood.


  6. Mike Lanza says:

    FedUp­Mom?—?This was 35 or 40 years ago. The term “spe­cial needs” was nonex­is­tent back then. “Men­tally retarded” was it. Also, play was highly sex-segregated. That’s the way it was.

    Mike, I understand your point, but I would be happier if you had made this explicit in your article. Otherwise it reads as if you haven’t noticed that some things have changed.

    … or have they changed? In recent times, we’ve had not only the airbags that killed children because nobody thought to test them on small dummies, but even more recently we’ve had a major new gadget named the “iPad” because apparently nobody asked women what they thought of the name.


  7. @northTOMom — what’s “British Bulldog”? I never heard of it before.

    One reason for the lack of kid “street gangs” is changing demographics. Children are an unusually low percentage of the population. And with more mothers working outside the house, a lot of those kids are in supervised care most of the day, instead of hanging out in the neighborhood.


  8. Hi FedUpMom,

    British Bulldog is a kind of tag game played in a large field or yard. One or two kids are designated as “it” (bulldogs) and stand in the middle. The other kids run from one end of the field to the other, and the kids in the middle have to try to catch them (traditionally tackle, but nowadays just touch them). The kids who are caught join the kids in the middle, and the game continues until there is only one kid left running–the winner.

    I suspect that this might have been more of a British, Canadian, Australian (ie, Commonwealth) game, than an American game, but there are probably American versions. Here’s the Wikipedia link:


  9. Oops, sorry, I don’t know how to comment on a specific comment, as opposed to on the original post. Can someone enlighten me? (I’m new here so I should probably shut up for a while anyway!)


  10. northTOMom — I don’t know how to comment on just one comment either. Thanks for the enlightenment about “British Bulldogs”.

    Also, you are new here, all the more reason you should keep on commenting!


  11. british bulldog is muy fun. Especially if you tackle…
    I shudder to think how we as parents would need to make that kind of spontaneous play possible, given the lack of spontaneity many kids these days have.
    I remember my friends when I was a kid– basically my mom’s friends’ kids. We’d just be let loose to do whatever, part of that meant adapting “traditional” games to locations. Small lawn? British bulldog. Large lawn? Freeze tag. Enormous lawn? Red rover.


  12. Miriam: Silken Laumann (in Child’s Play) has some suggestions for making spontaneous play possible again for kids. She suggests that parents organize free play gatherings at a local park one evening per week. In this scenario, parents supervise on a rotating basis, but they don’t participate or organize activities, merely sit somewhere, making sure that no kid gets nabbed. Obviously, this is not “spontaneous play” in the sense that we knew it, but it approximates it, while at the same time, addressing parents’ fears of kids being out and about by themselves. It’s kind of sad though to think that we have to “organize” spontaneous play for our kids…


  13. northTOmom – is all about creating a life of unsupervised play for kids. I have probably over 100 articles on various facets of this topic, including finding a home in a potential Playborhood, simplifying kids’ lives, making your yard into a kid hangout, choosing technologies for kids that get them outside running around, and the proper role for parents in facilitating outdoor play rather than controlling.

    I’m in the process of writing a book about all of this.

    Please ask me if you have any questions…


  14. Mike, does your book talk about gardening at all? I’m a big-time gardener (mostly flowers and a few veg.), and it’s been great for me and my kids and their friends.

    I garden organically, so I can encourage wildlife. I grow milkweed, so the monarch butterflies come around every year, and I grow butterfly weed that the emerging monarch caterpillars like to eat. I grow monarda (a native American species), which attracts hummingbirds. I built dry stone walls, and keep a rock pile and a stick pile, so we have salamanders, garter snakes, chipmunks, and of course the usual birds and squirrels. The kids love looking for salamanders with their friends.

    There’s a book called “The Naturalist’s Garden” which I found very helpful:

    We’re also in our second year of raising silkworms, which has been fascinating for the kids. (Warning — you *must* have access to mulberry trees for fresh leaves.) Last year, younger dd’s kindergarten gave us a bunch of silkworms that they had raised — we got them through the moth stage to the egg-laying stage. Then we gave the eggs back to the school and they put them in the refrigerator. This spring they took the eggs out of the fridge and they hatched so well that they’ve started giving the excess to other schools, and some back to us.

    One of the advantages of the silkworm project is that it’s seasonal — it’s very intense when they’re in the caterpillar stage (they need to be fed constantly), but once that’s done, you’re off the hook until the same season next year. So it’s not a year-long project that you might get tired of.

    We live in a quiet neighborhood with sidewalks (vitally important), so even fairly young kids can get around on scooters or bikes.

    Hope that’s helpful — good luck with your book —


  15. Mike–great site! I’m looking forward to exploring it more fully, and I`ll look forward to reading your book.

    One comment I’d make is that I found it easier to create an environment of unstructured play for my kids when they were young, i.e., before they started school. We actually live on a street in Toronto, where kids still do play outside, though you usually see a parent or two sitting on the front porch watching. Toronto is also kind of a weird city by North American standards in that it’s a place where there are still residential areas in the downtown core where people want to live and raise kids. But here, as elsewhere, after formal schooling begins, not only is there homework overload to contend with, but also an intense pressure to enroll kids in organized activities. I’ve actually written an article about the pressure my kids felt to join soccer, a pressure that they (and we) resisted and continue to resist, but it hasn’t been easy. My one daughter attends ballet class twice a week, and her twin sister is not currently enrolled in any after school activities. (She has taken tap and swimming lessons in the past). They both quit a wonderful children’s choir because of the enormous demands it was making on their free time. Their relative lack of involvement in structured activities marks them as a little odd, something which they have dealt with very well. (After all they’re twins, they have each other.) They have very good friends at school, but these friends are almost never available after school or on weekends because every single one of them is tied up virtually every day with scheduled activities. So they do have a lot of unstructured play time (when they’re not drowning in homework), but it’s mostly playtime with each other. Not a bad thing, but not what you and I had growing up either.


  16. FedUpMom – While I appreciate gardening with kids and practice it in my back yard, I don’t mention it in the book. The book is more about creating a social play environment in the neighborhood that draws kids to hang there rather than sitting inside glued to a computer screen or running from activity to activity.

    northTOmom – It is quite true that starting early is very important. My kids are very young (5-1/2, 2-1/2, and 10 months), and I do all sorts of things now with them that seem too early, but I’m setting habits and perspective.

    Regarding the temptation to join structured activities, believe it or not, most kids on our block and many in the surrounding neighborhood have the idea that playing in our yard is one of the coolest things to do. Really. So, for instance, I’ve noticed that neighbor kids have playdates with kids from outside our block that are based on coming over to our yard. Achieving this status for my block and yard was a very conscious goal of mine all along. My theory is that most neighborhoods are boring for kids compared to the alternatives they have (video games, FaceBook, TV, soccer, dance, etc.), so we need to make our yards into very attractive hangouts for kids. Here are some articles about our yard:


  17. british bulldog is muy fun. Especially if you tackle…
    I shudder to think how we as parents would need to make that kind of spontaneous play possible, given the lack of spontaneity many kids these days have.
    I remember my friends when I was a kid– basically my mom’s friends’ kids. We’d just be let loose to do whatever, part of that meant adapting “traditional” games to locations. Small lawn? British bulldog. Large lawn? Freeze tag. Enormous lawn? Red rover.


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