October 18, 2007

Backyard "Soccer"

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The air has a bit of a snap to it on this October afternoon, but the sun still offers some warmth for me and the other moms and dads watching soccer practice from a grassy slope. Sounds fairly typical, until you consider that the players are 3- and 4-year-olds, their coaches still young themselves at 14, and we're in the roomy backyard of some good friends instead of a community field.

If I had my druthers, kids would rack up most of their physical activity in the delightfully disorganized ways of my youth — with ranging games of kick the can, by building forts and dams in the spring run-off, and scratching hopscotch games onto the dirt driveway — instead of organized sports. But this backyard event is a close second. And from the way Talie jumps into the car at 4 o'clock on Fridays, it works for her, too.

After a game of soccer-style "red-light, green light" and a trip through the obstacle course with a mini-slide, mini-tramp, and mini-goal, Talie pops over to say hello. Her "Rhinos" shirt is proudly layered over her fleece jacket. She admires the baby on the mom's lap next to me, then darts off again as fast as she came, so as not to miss the parachute. Ten minutes later, she hoists her butterscotch lollipop, which moments ago was taped to a fellow player's back for a game of friendly chase.

Frenetic laughter erupts behind us. This can only mean the snack bus — a tent-like toy structure "driven" by school-aged kids — has arrived to deliver half-time water and pretzels to the players. As usual, the head coach's younger sister has cheerfully recruited as many siblings and friends as the bus could possibly hold.

Now they are all cracking up as the bus wobbles, halts, and wobbles again onto the field, where it collapses and dumps out the entire delivery crew. Talie loves this part — partly for the snacks, partly because for once it's her older sisters on the sidelines, while she's in the game.

Twenty minutes later, parents are saying goodbyes as they round up their players and coax the bigger kids off the tree swing. We pile back into our cars, parked willy-nilly all over our host's front yard.

It's not the completely freewheeling, out-til-mom-rings-the-bell stuff of my childhood. But this weekly backyard mingling of kids of all ages, where the big lead the littlest and the middlers fend for themselves for a bit, has some of those elements that I wish all kids had more of. Even if we call it "soccer."

Do you worry about your kids being overprogrammed? How do you make sure they get enough unstructured play time? Click the comments link below to find and share ideas.

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