I typically write about the early childhood realm. That’s where my professional expertise is. But as my own kids grow, I’m beginning to make some interesting observations about the span of childhood.
While my youngest two boys are still in the early childhood years, my oldest two are solidly in the school age years. (My oldest, in fact, seems intent on flirting with becoming a “tween”, which is puzzling to me, since I recall birthing him just yesterday.)
I’m starting to notice some of the perspectives and attitudes about “big kids” from a new vantage point. Just yesterday, my husband and I were talking about observations we’ve made as we’ve watched interactions in public playspaces. Not always, but sometimes, there seems to be almost an air of irritation when the big kids show up.
I remember, what seems like just a few years ago, being a mom of preschoolers and babies and sometimes having the same reaction at the playground. “Ugh. The big kids are here. Well, it was fun while it lasted.”
But as I learn more about the inherent value of play and the developmental processes as kids grow, the more embarrassed I am by my earlier thoughts.
Something occurred to me as my husband and I exchanged stories about the reactions people had had, not just to our boys, but to the “big kids” in general. Where do they — where did I — expect these “big kids” to play?
As a child, I was free to roam for hours with my siblings over acres of farmland. But kids today rarely have that luxury. Aside from the rarity of having access to that amount of space, today’s culture is less and less friendly to the idea of kids on their own. For many children, play areas are one of the few places where they’re allowed to exercise some independence and some big movements.
Where else would they be?
Are big kids supposed to relegate their time to organized sports? Or closet themselves in clusters around video games? Or maybe they need to sit down and do more worksheets?
Are our expectations for “big kids” on the playground another example of “pushing kids down the stairs“? Expecting them to do or be or act like something beyond their age.
Sometimes, even the most ardent advocates for childhood need to remember that big kids are still, in fact, kids. And kids need to play. All kids. (All humans, for that matter!)
Developmentally, these older kids are going to play differently than our little preschool dears. And sometimes that’s what makes us uncomfortable. But it’s also what makes the play developmentally appropriate for them.
Developmentally, these older kids are more socially driven and drawn to more organized play. So they gather together and organize rule-based play. From the outside, we may see an intimidating gang of big kids, but we’re actually watching the developmental progression of play in action.
These older kids may be more likely to use loose parts in different ways. Turning things over, building new strongholds, building, inventing, and challenging the status quo.
We wouldn’t expect these older kids to talk the way our preschoolers do, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find they don’t play the same way either.
Sometimes these differences make us uncomfortable. Myself included. Sometimes we’re tempted to say disapprovingly, “That’s not the way we do this at this playground.” But may we remember that they are playing. And play requires some degree of freedom and flexibility.
Sometimes, unfortunately, we’re tempted to shout at these big kids, correcting them in ways and tones that leave them cowering. But may we remember that even with their taller stature, louder voices, and larger vocabularies, they still carry tender hearts and growing capacities for self-control and social grace.
I’m not saying there shouldn’t be rules. And first and foremost is the “Renegade Golden Rule” shared by Heather Shumaker in her book, It’s OK Not to Share and Other Renegade Rules for Raising Competent and Compassionate Kids (*affiliate — check out our read along series here). “It’s OK as long as it doesn’t hurt people or property.” (And yes, “hurting” people includes hurting their feelings or making them feel unsafe.)
But as we help all children to follow these rules, we could also do our part to follow them ourselves. To gently remind rather than shout. To invite older kids to help out or problem solve rather than wish them away. To see them as children rather than a nuisance.
Childhood is meant for play. Childhood comes in many sizes, and there should be room for all.