When you hear the word GANG, what images come to mind? If you think of guns, violence, trouble-making, law-breaking or motorbike riding, then you are like me, and I would imagine many others.
Which is why you may also be surprised to hear that my wife and I were over the moon when our daughter proudly informed us that she had joined a gang! She roped her younger brother in too…
Let me clarify. My daughter Lily is nine years old, Ralphie is two, and they are part of a nine-member neighborhood gang of kids, aged 10 to two years old, who call themselves The Arrow Head Gang (pictured below).
According to the Merriam Webster definition, a gang is “a group of persons working to unlawful or antisocial ends; especially: a band of antisocial adolescents.” But the second meaning of the word describes a gang as “a group of persons having informal and usually close social relations.” And indeed, that sense of connection can foster amazing feelings of comradery, mateship, teamwork, diversity, acceptance, leadership, character building, emotional intelligence development, support and a sense of belonging. This is precisely what we have witnessed in our kids.
The image of children playing outside in their neighborhoods for the most part, is a thing of the past. Most of today’s children spend much of their time indoors or doing planned play activities. Many of us live in neighborhoods where we don’t know if there are other kids living in our street or even know the kids next door. But having a group of easily accessible play friends is a child’s ultimate desire, as well as the best way for our children to learn, test and hone many important life skills, habits and develop interests and identity.
Humans are highly social animals and children are hard-wired developmentally for social connection. As an example of this, I was recently told by a mother of a six-year-old girl, that she knew there were kids next door but had yet to take the initiative to introduce themselves and meet for play. The daughter, so hungry for play, took it into her own hands and started writing notes, sticking them onto balls and throwing them over the fence for the neighboring kids to read. They now play together regularly. Genius!
I know I will sound nostalgic — and old — but when I was lad, my childhood was a series of childhood gangs. We were groups of local friends, roaming together around green spaces, parks, streets, from friend’s house to friend’s house. In these groups, our need for belonging was satisfied. To a certain degree, we lived each other’s lives, walked in each other’s shoes. We developed a sense of each other’s families, and in some cases became extended members of those families. We developed empathy for each other during tough times and learned about difference, diversity and acceptance. In these groups, we were safe in each other’s company, nurtured by each other’s friendship, supported by each other’s companionship.
Sure we did dangerous things. We dared each other, pushed each other’s boundaries. We succeeded and failed, triumphed and got hurt. But we learned to navigate risk and no one got left behind.
I remember doing a wheelie on my bike all the way from the local store to home, I jumped off the bridges and trees into creeks and rivers, I climbed higher in the tree, jumped further on my bike, and tried harder and harder to build better cubbies, hide-outs, and secret bases. I extended myself and learned so much because of the gangs I was privileged to be a part of.
We fought, argued, debated, lost our tempers, sometimes hurt each other and stormed off. We also made-up, said sorry, learned the value of humility and forgiveness. We compromised because we valued our friendship above all. We learned that one good friend was all you need, but a gang of good friends amplified the opportunities, the adventure and the fun. We were mobile, we hiked, ran, rode our bikes, swam across creeks and rivers, explored and adventured everywhere around our local area. We knew our communities and we knew our neighborhoods – inside and out. We knew the dangers and safe places to go. We developed an ownership of our neighborhoods to the degree if we found out something bad happened we felt obliged to find out all the details and if possible, play a part in fixing it. We felt responsible for protecting our neighborhood culture because we were active in it, we were a part of it. The neighborhood was who we were.
Today as a grown man, I long for the friendships, trials, and triumphs of those days. I long for the regular connection with my friends, the adventures, the laughter and fun. More so, I long for this type of freedom for my children.
The Arrow Head Gang play out most afternoons and weekends. They are free to roam the street and spend the majority of the time either in each other’s cubby houses, swimming pools, in my shed, up trees and playing varied made up games such as families, teenagers, aboriginals, robbers and security guards, sardines. They ride their bikes or scooters, swing on the swings, monkey bars and other play equipment, and many other activities. They are constantly on the go, constantly moving and constantly active.
Like my childhood, they too also seem to be constantly negotiating and arguing, which leads to fighting at times and sometimes hitting. Sometimes they need breaks from each other and play separately, but they always work it out. Always.
This friendship group of outdoor players took about two years to bond and form a strong value and love of outdoor free play. They have been playing together for four years now and know each other inside-out. Their strengths and their weaknesses.
It has taken the parents the same amount of time to build the trust needed to ensure the kids are able to play outdoors freely, be as mobile as they are now, and play safely. We have been motivated by these goals for our children:
- To discover and know in their hearts a world they can create.
- To know that with effort, motivation, risk, and teamwork, you can achieve and be anything you want.
- To know in their hearts the magic and wonder of the natural world.
- To know the value of friends and how to be a good friend themselves.
- To develop a strong sense of identity and trust in who they are as individuals.
The Arrow Head Gang has been a practical way of ensuring our children have the outdoors in their everyday lives. It hasn’t been easy, we have made many mistakes, and have had to correct our thinking and actions to realign with nurturing an outdoor free play culture in our neighborhood. However for the most part, for us, it has been about getting out the way of our children’s play.
A version of this post has previously appeared on the Nature Play QLD website.
Photo credits: Hyahno Moser
Additional reading and resources
Nature Play QLD
LAST TREEHOUSE IN THE WOODS
RISKY PLAY: Losing a Childhood “Right” of Passage — and a Tool to Help Protect that Right
OutsidePlay.ca an online tool to help parents and caregivers gain the confidence to allow their kids to get out and play
Position Statement on Active Outdoor Play
Research: What is the relationship between risky outdoor play and health in children? A systematic review
Nature and why it’s essential for kids’ brains
Online Tool Supports Risky Play
Risky Playgrounds Create Healthy Kids
The Anti-Helicopter Parent’s Plea: Let Kids Play!
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