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In Backyard Games, Like Homeschooling, Age Doesn’t Matter
By Marlene F. Byrne

One evening, my son and I sat down to discuss the opportunities for activities he had. We reviewed information for soccer, football, golf, basketball, and swim programs, along with Cub Scouts, a scholastic enhancement program, an art class, book club, and so much more. In all of these programs, my son must register based on either his grade or birthday.

Organized sports not only create competition between teams but also comparisons between children. These comparisons can be difficult for the kids who grow at a slower pace or are not as coordinated at an early age, making them give up on opportunities too early.

Much like homeschooling, which allows children to progress at their own rate, backyard games let children of all ages play together without the comparisons and age restrictions of organized sports and other activities. They learn to play together and communicate with kids of different ages, breaking the age barrier.

However, there is a problem. Backyard games are becoming extinct. Previously passed down from one generation to the next—older kids would teach the young ones and so on—these games are fading in popularity as opportunities for learning them diminish.
The reasons for this are plentiful. Neighborhood families just don’t consist of seven or eight children any more, and children are so overscheduled with extracurricular activities, electronic models of play, and organized sports that you don’t see them playing outside like they once did. Playing is no longer as simple as walking out the back door, and today many parents are afraid of sending their children out to play by themselves.

But I believe the opportunity to play backyard games with kids of different ages increases one's creativity and negotiation skills. These are skills that are learned over time and which eventually spill over into adulthood. The world will always be desperate for innovative thinkers, thoughtful problem solvers, and courageous leaders. Unlike organized sports or video games, unstructured play allows children to develop their creativity and negotiation skills while working together. These important social skills can be transferred to almost any career or future endeavor.

So how can parents and educators help get the neighborhood kids together and playing again? It’s as simple as offering up your house for an unstructured play date where the kids take all the blankets to the basement to make forts. Or planning an evening in the backyard where their friends come with flashlights to play tag. Or maybe organizing a group that gets together for an afternoon treasure hunt.

The ideas are endless, but what it all comes down to is that kids need time to be kids and to participate in something that isn’t already "organized." They need to use their imaginations, play their own games, and negotiate the rules with kids who may not be the same age as themselves.

Just as homeschooling allows children to progress in subjects at their own pace, so does unstructured playtime. We’ve all seen the photo of the basketball team in which one player stands a full head over another on the same team. But when children are playing games like Kick the Can and Capture the Flag, skill differences don’t matter. It’s about learning from one another, playing for the sake of fun, and getting kids to really interact—instead of pressuring them to keep up with their peers.

Homeschoolers have a unique understanding about the importance of backyard play. Unlike many school educators, they embrace creative methods of learning instead of just curriculum. A trip to the museum, for example, could replace reading those lengthy chapters in the history textbook. There is more focus on raising well-rounded—or “renaissance” if you prefer the term—children. It’s about giving kids real social skills instead of driving up their test scores. They recognize that 5-year-olds, kindergarten-aged children, need more unstructured playtime than they get. Instead of giving children glue and scissors to play with, homeschoolers are frequently getting kids outdoors to places where they can interact not only with their peers, but with older kids, younger ones, and even adults.

It’s our job, as parents and educators, to continue making backyard playtime a priority and passing that message on to others. After all, a little bit of nurturing in nature goes a long way.


Marlene Byrne is the author of Project Play Books (www.ProjectPlayBooks.com)—a continually growing series of children’s books that inspires young readers to learn backyard games which spark the imagination and foster creativity. Through colorful, fictional stories about the Edgebrook gang, children get a glimpse into just how fun backyard games can be. Since its debut in 2008, the Project Play series has won the 2009 Mom’s Choice Awards and has received nationwide media attention from publications such as BusinessWeek, Disney’s FamilyFun Magazine, Chicago Parent, South Florida Parenting Magazine, Time Out Chicago, and the Midwest Book Review. When she’s not writing, Byrne is spending time with her husband Brian and their two children, Matthew and Maggie.

Copyright 2010.
Originally appeared in The

Old Schoolhouse Magazine,
Summer 2010.

Used with permission. Visit them at



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