Netball or Nothing: How Tweens Play
Nancy wants to play netball on Saturday. On every Saturday morning this term. It’s free, it’s good coaching, and it’s local. What’s not to like and where do I sign? Nancy pushes a consent form into my hand and I reach for a pen.
And then I stop.
Mum, says Nancy, Mum, I need to hand the form in today, can you put it in my bag?
Let’s just have a think about this, I say. Netball sounds great, but…
But you already do lots of stuff – climbing and piano and…
But Muuuum! Loads of girls from school are doing netball, and they know a different pass and they pass amongst themselves at school, and you get extra shooting coaching, and there are two breaks so you need two snacks and if it’s sunny make sure you have suncream on your face and you need to take an extra top in case it rains and Sophia says it’s really fun and I really like Sophia and if I don’t do netball with her she – well – she… Oh and you HAVE to take a water bottle, named, full, half a litre and above, it says so in capitals on the form.
Nancy, finally silenced by the capital letters, is looking at me expectantly. As I do nothing in response, the look changes, and now she seems to think I’m being annoying, or is it that she thinks I’m just plain weird?
Gosh this is a tricky one. I get it, what’s not to like and where do I sign, right?
But Saturdays are precious, we have always kept them free from other commitments and we spend the time together, doing – stuff. Playing in the woods, collecting blackberries, having a cook-up, going for a hike or a bike ride, creating something crafty on the kitchen floor, building a den or generally messing about as the mood takes us.
I thought we liked Saturday mornings as they are?
Nancy is getting cross, impatient, frustrated. If she was three she’d have lifted her knee by now, major foot stamp on it’s way. Instead, her tween sense of negotiation kicks in, and she asks, So what are we doing this Saturday?
Not sure, haven’t thought yet…
So it’s netball or nothing?
Let’s press pause on this conversation with Nancy because I want to have a think and check in with my friend Thelma: I know why I’m reluctant to pursue the netball coaching, but I recognise that I may be out of step with the rest of the tween world and I’m not sure even Thelma will be with me on this one.
But here’s our thinking. Saturdays are play days. And we’re using the word play to describe something that prioritises process over product. Maybe the play has a purpose or a goal but this is self-directed and any rules or routines are self-imposed. Competition, or keeping up, or keeping score, has no role in a Saturday play day. Even the social rules of tween interactions, the routines of kit and caboodle, the timetables imposed by so many fun activities to fit in, aren’t part of our ideal Saturday play day, important as these things are in the rest of the week.
Looking back, play was once the main point of Nancy’s day, even her early education. Now, the verb to play is used in the main to talk about how often Nancy plays the piano per week, is she playing hockey or netball today and can she convince anyone to play Cluedo any time soon. At what point did we – her parents, her teachers, her friends, society – decide that to play in that open-ended, free play way was no longer relevant? How soon will the verb ‘to hang out’ replace the concept of play altogether in the lives of our tweens?
Nancy’s play time at school is often spent on the play apparatus, cunningly designed to encourage creative interpretation of structures and spaces, and many playground equipment in parks, woods and nature reserves are similarly good for encouraging play that has no need to engage with too many regulations and preconceptions. There are impromptu dance routines created, or gymnastics practiced, or a game of football starts up in a free-for-all, not-for-purists way. This is all good stuff and long may it continue. There is a sense of purpose to the play without loss of playfulness, something John Dewey describes in his work on play in education.
You can read more about John Dewey’s work here – this is a longer research article, preceded by an abstract if you want to cut the reading short: https://www.mdpi.com/2227-7102/7/1/16/htm
There are opportunities at school for organised sport and games during longer play times, too; great for building skills and sometimes offering a lifeline to tweens who, for different reasons, may be struggling with free time and social interaction without adult support but I would question such activities as a definition of free play at play time.
Free play implies freedom, and that’s what I love most about Saturday mornings. Freedom to decide what to do, to create your own reasons for doing it, to do what you have decided to do at your own pace, with the person or people you want to be with. Or not. Perhaps we are most free when we are by ourselves, and how often in their busy, fulfilling, socially engaged lives are our tweens permitted the freedom to be by themselves? Let them build a den, climb or crawl into it and close the door on everyone else once in a while, a blanket over the dining table with a torch underneath is enough to give them the chance to create their own freedom and to inhabit it alone now and again.
Netball or nothing? How easy it is in family life for free time to become iPad time, catch up with the washing time, focus on another sibling because they’re shouting louder time, go through your own emails time. No-one ever said parenting was easy.
Netball or den-building, Nancy?
Spotting my dilemma, Nancy cashes in: Can I have waffles for breakfast in the den? And can we play Cluedo as well?
Rightly or wrongly, Saturday morning netball coaching is on hold for now.
My friend Thelma and I found this chat about play a tricky one. We ended up asking ourselves how we play, as adults, and why we play, should we play, can we find time to play and to what extent is it a priority, as families and as individuals, that we play? As friends, we are playing out together this week: we’re not sure we want to crawl under our dining-room tables, even with waffles, but a wander in the woods in search of Autumn colours and the freedom to talk, or not, aimlessly or with purpose, as the mood takes us, might just do the job.
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