I’m pondering the state of things as we enter the second decade of the 21st century.  While I’ve been told that my crystal ball is a bit cracked, certain broad trends seem extremely clear. Politics will get increasingly bizarre, 3D movies are here to stay and more to the point of our blog, although we’ll continue to see an occasional news item about stickball and other “old time” games, there will be no resurgence of children’s participation in unsupervised, unstructured outdoor activities. In fact to the chagrin of any middle-ager recalling joyful memories of playing kick the can, the main form of entertainment at this point seems linked in to computer. Now while I believe good things can be said about Wii Fit and imaginative play inspired by video games, clearly, much has been lost.

Since starting my second career as a social worker about five years ago, my primary focus has been working with children who experience difficulties with social interactions.  Many of the kids are considered to be on the Asperger’s/Autism spectrum or diagnosed with ADHD. Most find computer based games quite enjoyable, few go outside much to play, or even engage in board games or other non-electronic indoor interactive activities. Being the “street play type of guy” that I am, I’ve looked for opportunities to engage the kids in outdoor activities, and when I’ve been able to include this as part of the therapeutic experience, I’ve noticed some interesting results. I’ll use one example to illustrate the point.

During one of my initial work placements, I counseled Jimmy (not his real name), a 10-year-old boy with ADHD, some learning difficulties, and significant behavioral issues, many of which were clearly compounded by two years involvement in the foster care system before being reunited with his family.  For the first couple of months when I saw Jimmy our focus was playing with Lego’s and other toys we had in the office, but when spring weather came I suggested we take a rubber ball outside and throw it around. We started with a simple game of catch. Jimmy clearly had not had much experience throwing and catching however he loved running and seemed to enjoy the physical release that accompanied the experience of chasing the balls. One day I showed him how to throw the ball against a wall and painted a chalk box as a target, which eventually led into our own stickball game.  On another occasion I demonstrated how to slap the ball against the wall and keep the activity going for a cooperative handball experience.

We were playing in a seldom used parking lot surrounded by a couple of concrete walls and our games reflected this environment.  In fact, we started to develop a competitive game unique to our specific situation, which we called “bonk-ball” because whenever the ball was thrown against the wall it echoed a bonking sound. Briefly, you got a point by simply throwing the ball against the wall and catching the return. Only the person who “served” was allowed to score points and you served until the other person caught the ball.  The field was simple, composed of three parking spots, the first next to a wall, the adjoining spot, a little further from the wall and the third spot further still.  We each had zones in which we were restricted and could move only within our own, Jimmy’s being the 2nd spot, mine the 3rd.  Given the fact that Jimmy’s zone was closer to the wall theoretically he should have been able to win every time. However this required him to maintain focus on the task at hand (throwing and catching the ball) and not let himself get distracted or try too many fancy tricks. Since keeping a focus was a difficult thing for Jimmy, I had many opportunities to get the ball.  Given my size and familiarity with throwing/catching, I could easily score and was thereby able to control the game, without him knowing.  I’d keep the score and competition at an ideal point in order to maintain his level of concentration.

We were only getting together once a week, so Jimmy’s play time was limited, however, I noticed a rapid improvement in his abilities to throw, catch and manage physical space.  As he improved, we added new rules and limitations, which kept the game competitive and made it more complex.  I began to insist that he announce the score before each throw, which meant he had to consistently add, subtract and use his short term memory – all things he needed to work on.   And again, the use of the skills meant that they too began to improve, at least in this environment.

Then of course, there was the bigger picture, the context that the game was played.  Aside from the physical and mental challenges involved, Jimmy was learning how how to play by the rules, negotiate new rules, reach agreement in ambiguous situations, and deal with both winning and losing.  That’s a pretty good group of handy life skills one needs to succeed in any society.

Jimmy’s family moved away, so I won’t be able to learn how things worked out for him. And truth be told, I’d probably never be able to actually determine the impact of our game – life’s way too complicated for that.  Still, I think how we created an experience that tested him, pushed his limits, and included come from behind victories, defeats and other moments of drama that he will always remember.  And that’s something I’d wish for all the kids.  For although our children have all kinds of devices providing entertainment and calling their attention, there seem to be many simple, glaring gaps that will not be filled in this brave new world.