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March 20, 2016

A Vote for Free Play

A Vote for Free Play

FAMILY SUNDAY – Give the personal trainers and position coaches a week or two off. Surrender all digital devices. Grab one kid, a few more, call out to the whole block, invite in kids you’ve never met, parents too, and go play catch. Take with you a bunch of different-sized balls so they can pair up or you can mix and match kids, and play fun games with different age levels. You can play run the bases with no other equipment except for two bases and a ball, and a bunch of eager kids who like to get caught in between. Or you can grab a bat and play a fun game of softball or baseball.

We come from a family and a neighborhood that didn’t believe in or even recognize “elite” or “travel” teams that are now the norm. Our parents would not have tolerated our being told at 9 or 10 years old that we were “special” compared to other kids in our age group. We had to be kids first, and along the way if we earned a promotion, great. If not, we still were expected to be open, fair and inclusive. We didn’t need a professional coach to teach us the basics. Dad aka Coach of our basketball and softball teams through eighth grade, drove the station wagon through Wynantskill, NY on the way to practice. For years, he picked up and dropped off so many kids whose parents never went to practices and not very often to games. We hit the parks or backyard, and played whatever sport that moved us. We invited everyone, regardless of age, gender, size or ability and we made it work. Granted, when the adults were not around to police, it did get wild and intense, but in that madness and through those tears, we learned a few things: 1) what it meant to stand up for yourself without mom or dad or a sitter bailing you out; 2) what it felt like to be tough; and 3) what it meant to be a kid with humanity and ethics when another kid was being picked on, left out, or ridiculed.

Here are my favorite shots of an impromptu game we started in the backyard of my brother’s home. Adults were there to manage, a handful of whom played college sports, but you would never know it by how slowly we moved. The oldest player was dad (now 70), and the youngest at the time was Morgan, who was 2 years old (now 7). Aunt Carol, who never played a sport in her life, now almost 60, backed up Keston at shortstop. Keston’s favorite catch partner is my brother-in-law, Mike Bellafiore, who played baseball for a year at UConn. My favorite shots are of my sister teaching Morgan how to run the bases. The best one is seeing Morgan grasp it, then watching her keep one eye on her brother, knowing that he was trying to get her out, and she was not going to let that happen.

No coach needed. Just a ball, a bat, and an invitation to participate in an inclusive environment, which is exactly what kids want. At a later date and time, reality does set in. But until then, there is so much joy in the simple act of setting up a few hours filled with free play.

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