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Why Real Play Benefits Your Son More Than Video Games

How real play helps your child learn much-needed real-life skills.

Pre-game jitters. They have hit our house hard and my boys could hardly fall asleep last night. We love baseball at our house but like any sport, some games are bigger and way more important than others. This is one of those games. All of their friends will be there today-the guys they’ve grown up with on their club teams, school friends, and even new friends from the ballfield. They’ve played with these boys in front of cheering sections on the community baseball fields and for their own fun in the backyard.

On this get-up-before-the-alarm morning, their dopamine is already revved up just thinking about the day and the excitement it will bring. They will take showers, get dressed, pack their lunches, and pile in the car to pick up some friends on the way to the big game. The smiles on their faces are priceless and the middle school joking in the back seat tells me that they have already entered “the (boy) zone.”

We arrive at the fields, and I have fulfilled my only duty: Head driver. They are chattering non-stop, breaking down the upcoming game as they jump out of the car. Poof! They disappear in the red dust they are kicking up as they run to the field. One would think we are at the Little League World Series, but in many respects, it is much better than that. It is a sandlot baseball game.

Why is a pick-up ball game so important?

Today they won’t have umpires or coaches. There won’t be a crowd or a concession stand. There won’t be perfectly clean matching uniforms. Best of all, they won’t have any parents “helping out.” Mom won’t be doting on them to give them jackets, make them eat, or give them water and apples (and other healthy snacks) between innings. Dad won’t be there to give last-minute tips during the walk to the plate or cringe with disappointment if there is a strikeout.

Unstructured “rough and tumble” peer play, like pick-up games, have been proven to benefit your child’s growing brain more than an extra math worksheet, his video game, or social media. It also may help him with stress, anxiety, and attention problems more than a prescription.

They assemble on the mound and their first order of business is to pick teams. This is done brilliantly as if applying a complicated algorithm, they instantly take into consideration the size, age, and experience of each player and come up with a plan they can all work with. It only takes three minutes. There are no written rules for this and no names will be picked from a hat “to make it fair” and “not hurt feelings.” And no feelings will be hurt. It is part of the “boy code,” to know where you stand in the heap and be fine with it. (Mom and Dad are the only ones that really care about the pecking order of the heap, the boys don’t.)

Next order of business: review the rules for the day. The natural leaders emerge from the group to discuss the rules for today’s game. This is not like a videogame where the rules are already figured out for you. This is real life, you must work together to win and solve problems, no one can leave, respawn, or hit the reset button. Resembling a fine-tuned, profitable company assembled in their baseball diamond “board room,” there are rules to obey, a pecking order to follow, guiding principles, and goals to accomplish. Many voices are heard but solutions are quickly reached and order is established. There is even a Mission Statement: Have fun no matter what.

The secret ingredient: No parents allowed.

From a far-away seat on a picnic table, I’m soaking in the sun, reading a book, and am most amazed at the constant stream of loud chatter. Who knew boys could talk so much? I keep my distance and don’t go near their sanctuary of dead grass and chewed sunflower seeds. I don’t dare give them any advice or tips or rules or comments: “Be careful!”, “Did you forget your glove or your lunch?” or “Do you have enough baseballs?” or the dreaded, “Do you have to go to the bathroom.?” They will figure it all out.

Then, I hear a loud announcement…

“This is so much more fun than sitting on my couch playing a video game, right guys?!!”

And another.

“That hit would have been a home run in the World Series!” (followed by a dab, loud noise, freestyle dance, and a series of funny comments that I (thankfully) can’t make out.)

In the world of sandlot baseball, a pat on the back is payment for a good hit. A “great catch” from your peers is much more priceless than that same compliment from your coach or parent. Pretty much any form of celebration is not only expected but required after good plays. Nothing nurtures a boy’s soul more than this mix of peer affirmation, approval, excitement, independence, and dirt.

Why? Scientific facts show us that nothing builds a child’s brain or develops their frontal cortex (including their ability to control impulses and reduce ADHD symptoms) more than this kind of free play. Nothing.

“Real Play” is the cornerstone for critical “Real Life” social development.

As the base runner gets caught between first and second, the action gets heated. In the world of baseball, this dilemma is called a pickle. Back and forth, over and over. “Will he be safe?” I ask myself as I try hard not to watch from my far-away seat at the picnic table or make the call in my head. The possible altercation I was fearing was thankfully broken by contagious laughter. Ahhhhh! No fighting today. Socially, they are discovering that correctly used humor universally resolves tension and avoids conflict. Maybe more adults should play sandlot baseball.

In this “safe” sandlot game, these boys are rehearsing real-life skills today:

•risk-taking
•teamwork
•leadership skills
•social skills
•conflict resolution
•empathy
•creative problem solving

“Real Play” is in a different league than “Virtual Play.”

There is no hiding behind a screen or virtual avatars which makes this real play healthier, much harder, more satisfying and more valuable than screen play. They are having fun and doing exactly what they should be doing: childhood. This chapter of their 12-year-old childhood “play history” will turn out to be more important than any academic skill they have acquired. This real play will contribute to their cognitive development and to the valuable and rare independence they will need to be future leaders in the real world 15 years from now.

Will they remember the exact move in their video game when they killed a bad guy? Or the feeling they had when their whole sandlot team ran up to give them a chest pump and high five after their home run hit? Will they tell you around the dinner table, what it felt like being on top of the leaderboard of their latest video game? Or what it felt like to get your buddy home from third with 2 strikes? Deep down every boy knows which story is more important in the scope of life and every boy craves to be in that real story.

No trophies? No worries.

They worked very hard today and they are tired. They are dirty. They are hungry. They are smiling. They are exhausted. Their voids are filled. They will go home and fall into bed tonight reliving the moments when they hit the ball over the fence for the first time in the history of their life or, if they didn’t, they will dream about hitting it over next time. Their motivation to practice in the backyard with their bucket of balls after school is now a few notches stronger. They won’t get a shiny trophy today (thank goodness), but their social skills and their self-esteem is developing and the combination of physical competition mixed with fun and friends IS the trophy that will make them better. They will be better friends, better students, better husbands, better dads, and better people.

After living through the unnatural experience of having a gamer who was always quiet and clean, I welcome the dirty clothes, the silly boy humor, and the loud noise. But do I love all that red mud in my car? Yes, I do! It is my trophy and I’m proud of it! Dinner will be simple tonight, sleep will be deep and dreams will be many. We are so thankful not to be filling our days with video games any longer. We are in a different league now. We will never go back!

Bringing it home.

How hard did your child play today? Was it real play or screenplay? If you can’t get your child to easily step away from the screen, try planning some time for him to be with his friends outside. Prioritize times for your child to engage in real, unstructured play: swimming, baseball, biking, hiking, basketball, football, fishing, camping or just playing in the yard with neighborhood friends. Remember, no amount of screen time will replace the real play needed as your child’s brain develops…or for the best childhood possible.

Having a hard time getting your child out of the screen trap? ScreenStrong is here to help. We understand it can be a challenge in our world filled with screens! Join the ScreenStrong Families Facebook Group to receive encouragement and support from other parents who know what it’s like. Take the ScreenStrong Challenge, and learn about the effects of screens on the teen brain by viewing Kids Brains and Screens 101. You only have one family and we want to help it be the BEST it can be!