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Whatever happened to play?

By By Cariag Ziemba
Jan. 20, 2002
Stories of parental misbehavior at children's sporting events are nothing new, but the recent case of the hockey dad who killed another parent illustrates just how out of hand things have become.
The rise of organized youth sports is a cultural phenomenon that has enormous potential for good, teaching values of teamwork, fitness, competition, and how to be gracious in victory or defeat. But ultimately, a sport is just a game, less important than friendships and hardly a matter of life and death.
Much has been written about parents who try to live out their unrealized athletic dreams in the life of their offspring. The story of Tiger Woods seems to have encouraged parents across the country to push their children to pursue sports seriously at incredibly young ages.
Would that these parents would take such an enthusiastic interest in their children's education. Realistically, only a tiny fraction of 1 percent of us will ever make a living playing sports, but with an education, we can all become professionals at our chosen vocation. This is worth remembering.
If we are not careful, our national obsession with athletic achievement will cost our children something else that is very important: the ability to play. Drive through any neighborhood today and if you take a thought to notice, there is something conspicuously absent: You will rarely see kids outside playing any more. Talk to them and you will understand why. Many go straight from school to practice, followed by a game or church function.
Our field was from the big azalea to the cypress knees, over to the live oak and back down to the brick sidewalk. We called our own plays and fouls and learned to settle our own disputes.
Whenever we felt like it, we dropped the game, ran across the street, peeled off our shirts, and jumped in the bay. We had dirt-clod wars using trash can lids for shields, made impressive jumps for our big wheels and bikes, and built tree forts and teepees all over the woods.
From our foxholes we lobbed magnolia hand grenades at imaginary Russian invaders and rolled log cannons up to defensive positions on high ground. My neighbor's attic was outer space where we floated weightlessly over clouds of pink insulation and built a space shuttle among the rafters (kind of warm in the summer, but that was the price you pay to be an astronaut).
With BB guns slung over our shoulders we struck out like Lewis and Clark to explore the vast (to us) Escambia River swamp and brought home snake skins and wide-eyed tales of close encounters with alligators. Ours was a world of imagination and adventure that you can't experience in front of a television or computer screen or even on a ball field. And I loved every hot, sweaty, bug-bitten minute of it.
I went on to play a full range of high school varsity and collegiate intramural sports, and never once wished I could trade all of those years of childhood play to have had some serious coaching or dedicated training. I had no delusions of becoming a professional athlete. Sports were just games that rounded out my experience as I pursued my actual career.
To this day I have fond memories of the camaraderie of playing on some teams that won championships and others that never won a game. But just as dear to me are those summer nights when we would be so wrapped up in play that the whippoorwills had to remind us it was time to go home.
We had the rest of our lives to get serious about work. A kid's job was to play.