Swingball, Big Bird, and Lava Scooters: Perspectives on Play

By Catherine Lamont, Writer-in-Residence, Slate School

When my children were little, they played in the backyard with the neighbor kids almost every day. They used to pretend they were a family and that their house (our tree fort) was surrounded by hot lava. The only way to get over the lava was to ride scooters, which they determined were lava-proof. On rainy days, they made feasts of imaginary food out of mud and grass with Frisbees as plates. One time, while digging in the yard, they found an old plastic Big Bird toy. They created a game where one of them would hide Big Bird somewhere in the yard, and the other children would have to find him. They also invented a game called swingball, a variation on kickball in which the person kicking the ball was simultaneously swinging. The game was born out of the fact that we had a very small backyard, not nearly large enough to play kickball. But we did have swings.

I remember sitting in the kitchen drinking my coffee, marveling at how the children never ran out of things to do in that tiny backyard. They didn’t seem to get bored. Or if they did, they came up with something else to do. They were fully immersed. They lost all track of time. And every evening, when they came in for dinner, they were exhausted, dirty, and happy.

Years later, both my kids are in college, and I’m still sitting in my kitchen drinking coffee, contemplating their days of play. I’ve been thinking about play a lot these last few months since I joined the team at Slate School. Suddenly, I’m surrounded by people who validate everything I did as a mother, even the things that seemed counter-cultural at the time. My maternal instinct always told me that unstructured play was good for my children, but we lived in a world of play dates and soccer practices and dance classes. I sometimes worried that I was a slacker mom because play dates and organized activities always felt a little strained and stressful to me—and endless days of unstructured play felt just right.

I now see the many lessons of play that my children learned out there in the backyard all those years ago. I have come to believe that swingball and Big Bird and lava scooters actually played a huge part in making my children who they are. When they were pretending to be a family with the neighborhood kids, they were actually developing their negotiating skills and learning the nature of compromise. (As I recall, it was a messy business deciding who would play each role in the family.) They learned problem-solving and adaptability through the process of creating games like swingball or imagining a solution for traversing hot lava. I realize now that even something as sweet and simple as making food out of mud has its life lessons: creativity, sharing, and the math skills necessary to divide the feast among friends.

What my children learned most of all from play is that they’re capable, that they can figure things out for themselves, that they can create their own joy. Play, it seems to me, is mostly about freedom. But freedom doesn’t have to be a free-for-all. In fact, much of what kids do in play involves making up their own rules, rules that help them navigate the backyard, and eventually, the world. I see now that the skills my children have acquired through play are precisely the skills they need in their adult lives. It sounds ironic, but play has given them exactly what they need to grow up.

The other day, my daughter, who’s now 19, told me that the old Big Bird toy is still hidden out there in our backyard. Apparently, the last time the kids played Hide-Big-Bird, they stopped mid-game for some reason. She couldn’t remember why. Maybe they were called into dinner. Or maybe they moved on to another game. Then, as they grew older, their outdoor play shifted to indoor board games and the occasional round of Capture the Flag. And they forgot all about the plastic yellow bird toy hidden in the yard. As I hung up the phone with her, I looked out into the backyard and smiled, knowing that Big Bird was out there somewhere—in a really good hiding place—waiting for the next children to find him.

About Catherine Lamont, Writer-in-Residence

Catherine Lamont is Slate School's Writer-in-Residence. Catherine Lamont received her Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Journalism from Northwestern University. She has been a newspaper reporter, magazine writer and editor, book publicist, and writing teacher. She was a staff writer on the team that launched Sassy, a magazine for teenage girls. As a freelancer, she has written stories for several national magazines, including Health, Premiere, Brides, and Utne Reader. She currently teaches professional writing at Southern Connecticut State University.

Catherine is passionate about helping students discover their voices as writers. She has taught writing at all age levels, but she is particularly excited about working with young children who are just acquiring the basic tools of writing. She believes that writing starts long before students know how to construct a sentence. It begins with children seeing beauty in language, asking questions, looking for details, making connections, and finding meaning in the world around them. She is thrilled to go on that journey with the children of Slate School, and to help them tell their stories.