Go Outside and Play

IT WAS ABOUT THIS TIME OF YEAR that many of my junior high school classmates started talking about summer camp.

“Summer camp?” I thought. “Ha! That means I get to go outside to do chores.”

And that didn’t mean a hiatus from cleaning my dad’s bathroom, emptying wastebaskets, or carrying the laundry downstairs. It meant doing all of that and taking the garbage out to the street, picking weeds, and mowing the lawn.

See, I was raised by parents who came of age during the depression, so everyone was expected to do their share. Without moaning. No moaning. And there was no columnar list on the refrigerator showing which kid did what. No smiley faces added if you completed the chore.

Just do it.

Truth be told, mowing the lawn wasn’t all that much of a chore. It was a release of my inner anality. You want straight lines? I’ll give you straight lines. Honestly, I missed my calling. I should have skipped college and worked my way up to become head of the Chicago Cubs grounds-keeping crew. Plus, mowing the lawn usually ended with me and my dad sitting on the front steps sharing a Ballentine’s Ale. Summer heat, sweat, my dad, and a few sips of his beer: emotionally and physically stratospheric.

Summer chores completed, there was also time for play.

Building tree forts. My pals and I thought it was our duty to, how shall I put this, beautify our neighborhood by cleaning up construction sites of scrap lumber and nails carelessly strewn about.

Capturing bugs. Studying bugs. Torturing bugs. (Hey, we were boys, alright?)

Exploring a nearby swamp for turtles and frogs. Bringing home said turtles and frogs to live in my mom’s laundry sink. Standing with head bowed in front of my mom. Returning said turtles and frogs to the swamp.

Camping out in the backyard. Talking late in the night about cars, Mad magazine, the latest Mercury or Gemini space mission, girls, and the “good parts” in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels – our animated faces lit by the glow of our Coleman lantern; our conversations punctuated by too many Three Musketeers, Snicker Bars, PayDays, Mounds, and my favorite – still to this day – Milk Duds. Whoever came up with that blend of milk chocolate and caramel should be sainted.

Riding our bikes to the A&W Root Beer stand for a Black Cow. And then riding all the way home not using our handlebars – sipping and spooning out ice cream as we rode. Who were the cool kids now?

Building a baseball diamond, and playing out our version of the most recent World Series. Endlessly. Arguing whether the pitch was a “Strike!” or “Ball!” and whether Jimmy Concannon was “Safe!” or “Out!” Endlessly.

Play was fun.

What we didn’t know was that play was also healthy.

I don’t have kids, and I no longer teach, but I read a lot that kids growing up today are more withdrawn, anxious, and aggressive than ever before. Why? We might want to check on how much they engage in play. As educator Hannah Beach recently remarked on my podcast,

“The loss of free play is hugely detrimental to the healthy emotional development of kids. Kids need play in order to make sense of the world. This is where they digest their anxiety, their aggression, and their frustration.

Children have replaced play with electronic entertainment, and they are not the same thing. Entertainment is something that comes into us. Whereas play is something that comes out of us. We have kids who are breathing entertainment in and in and in and they are emotionally full. They are arriving in our classrooms with no place to digest their alarm, their frustration, and they’re filled with aggression and anxiety”

I’m not a parent, but I am a lifelong educator, so what’s happening to kids today concerns me. I want today’s kids to love their childhood and teenage years. After all, they’re going to be adults tomorrow. If I were a parent, I would probably be inclined to say what my mom said if she found us on that rare occasion of watching what she felt was too much TV.

Go outside and play.

My mom is no longer around for me to argue the defense’s case for turtles and frogs, but somehow, she instinctively knew that getting outside – armed only with what our imaginations and hands could create – was good for us.

You’re right: COVID-19 currently makes this impossible for most kids. But if the scientists are right, one day soon, bugs, baseball, and building tree forts will all be fair game.


Jeff Ikler
Jeff Ikler
The river that runs through my career lives – as teacher, publisher, coach, podcaster and author – is helping individuals acquire knowledge, skills, and self-awareness so they can better achieve their desired results and impact. • As Director of Quetico Leadership and Career Coaching, I work with individuals and leaders to overcome obstacles and make sustained changes in their behavior. • I co-host the podcast “Getting Unstuck – Shift for Impact,” where I bring to light inspirational stories of transformation in the field of education. • I am the co-author of the soon-to-be-published book for school educators, Shifting: How Educational Leaders Can Create a Culture of Change.

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  1. Mixed emotions from this journey of a read Jeff. Sensing into joy picturing you as a little boy, dutifully completing you chores, doing little boy things and the wonderful bond with your father that is a common theme with your recent articles. I have never seem a photo of you as a kid and somehow I know you would look exactly like the picture created by my mind. I sense the effects of the loss of play with my nephews and niece and I truly hope they find a way to cultivate some sort of play that comes out of them. I am so grateful that we have found a way to play through writing. I am certainly grateful to be able to play with paper with the imagination of child.

    By the way, Milk Dudes and Bond movies remind me of going to the theatre with my dad. The turtle and frogs remind me of camping at Chain O’ Lakes

    • We don’t have kids, but we see the effects of lack of play on the children of friends of ours: withdrawn just like Hannah Beach said. Maybe there will be a burst of play when we come out the other side of this.

      Thanks for reading and responding, and for becoming a charter member of the Milk Duds #HumansFirst spin off.

  2. Jeff, I enjoyed this article, as I enjoy all of yours. My brother and the kids from our neighborhood were outside all the time. We had woods to play in. We had a brook running through our yard. We had a huge field for playing football, baseball, and basketball. We created as much mischief as we were required to as boys.

    Since my wife, Anne, has just joined the BIZCATALYST360˚ family, I want to share one of the posts from her website here. She’s much more artistic than I am, and her expression of play captures that beautifully:

    Happy reading. And thank you for giving us more pleasurable reading from you.

    • Thanks, Mark. “We created as much mischief as we were required to as boys.” So well said. Thanks for sharing Anne’s post.

  3. Oh Jeff! Thank you for this post. I needed to read it. My children have bonded so closely since the COVID-19 pandemic hit. They play outside by themselves (a fenced yard) and in their playroom for hours. My son is playing with baby dolls and my daughter is playing with dirt and bugs. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    While working from home and simultaneously raising two kids, sometimes I think I let them free play too much. Perhaps I should be more involved and create more structure in their activities. Should I create a theme day and fill it with a color coded schedule? But maybe I’m doing it just right! Let them explore their environment. Let them play. Let them express themselves.

    I know I’m far from perfect, but sometimes I might just get it right – as unknowingly as it comes. Thank you for the reminder.

    • JoAnna, I always appreciate reading your responses because you put such thought into them. I love the picture of your son playing with dolls and you daughter playing with dirt and bugs. Good for you for letting them discover. I’d like to introduce you to another brilliant writer who is now gracing these pages, Tammy Hader. She left a comment above. You two poets need to meet and share life stories.

  4. Thank you so much, Jeff, for this important reminder that play and creative expression are essential for emotional and mental health for both children (and adults!). Some of my favorite childhood memories happen to be the ones when I immersed myself in nature -either alone-or with friends-sledding on the “big hill” (that’s what we called it), climbing the “big tree” (again, what we called it) because it really was huge compared to the other trees in our neighborhood, pulling up rocks to see the roley poley bugs and creeping crawlers underneath as they quickly made haste to dig deeper into the dirt to avoid the sunlight or our muddy fingers, rollerskating on the sidewalks, ice skating on frozen ponds…

    There’s something magical and wonderful about exploring the natural world with a friend by your side (or in your case-several).

    As we grow to appreciate our connection with one another (because of all the physical distancing), I also hope that children and us adults deepen our appreciation for the natural world and the playground that is planet earth!

    • Laura, what is it about nature and kids? Why does a forest or even an empty tree-filled lot – like the one next to the house where I grew up – feel like the real playground? Is our inner child quietly acknowledging wonder and amazement?

      I could smell the moist earth when you pulled up the rocks. Thank you for a great response and for sharing your memories.

    • No, really? Milk Duds??? One more reason to love everything about you! Thanks for reading it. Glad it landed. We will have to share a box next time we’re together. NLV 2021?

  5. Well said Jeff. Playing, running, using imagination, developing creativity, developing friendships, settling differences are so important for well rounded development. Another benefit of these things…. after a long day of play they’re physically tired and more likely to get a good nights sleep, ready for a new day.

    • Great point about the impact of all that exercise, Scott & Sandi.Thank you for the read and comment.

  6. Wonderful article, Jeff. The importance of play on our mental health and overall well-being cannot be overstated. You so eloquently invite us to “go outside and play”, words I heard many times during childhood and gladly obliged.

    We would often play home run derby in a make-shift field we created in the back of our apartment complex. The bases were all trees and centerfield (and most of the outfield) was the fence to the playground. Each at bat became an attempt to launch one over the fence and into the playground for a home run! Fun times with the neighborhood kids.

    • Brian — Your diamond looked pretty much like our diamond. I remember dragging myself home all sweaty and dirty. My mother simply pointed to the upstairs bathroom. “And don’t forget to clean it up when you’re done!” she would add. Thanks for the add, Brian.

  7. Great article, Jeff! Thanks for the walk down memory lane and I agree with all your points right down to the Milk Duds. My brother and I spent so much time inventing our play, both inside and outside.

    Yes, there are many organized sports to help today’s kids stay active, but that isn’t the same as free play. Adults creating the play situation, dictating the rules of the game and enforcing the rules of the game does not allow children to learn engagement and management skills that are so valuable in the workplace.

    In today’s world, virtual skills are more important than when we were kids, but hands on is still a much better teacher for creating a well rounded adult. Thank you for this article.

    • Great point about free play vs organized sports. I hadn’t thought of that distinction, but it’s critical. In one we make the rules, in the other the rules are made for us. Thanks for offering that important point, Tammy.

    • I can’t take all the credit for that point. A couple of years ago, I saw a documentary about the ball and play at Tallgrass Film Festival. Very good documentary that included the idea of play teaching kids how to work together and problem solve without the aid of adults.

  8. Jeff, thank you for sharing this lovely retrospect with us. It is heartwarming and a nod to childhood for sure. Your storytelling brought me back to my childhood and how we would play outside for hours – riding bikes, kickball, hanging out and telling stories, and in the summer, walking to our favorite ice cream shop.

    I’m a fan, as you know, of getting outside and disconnecting from our routine even if only for a short time. It’s vital at any age. I don’t have children either, but if I did, I’d like to think we’d all spend time outside. I know my canine child loves it. So if it’s good for him, then it’s good for me.

    It’s easy to become attached to our devices, and bury our heads for hours, especially now as we find ourselves in a new normal. But I hope that when this passes, and it will, that we all savor the little things that have been hidden from our lives because we were running at mock speed.

    Thanks for this story, Jeff. It’s a keeper! I hope you are staying healthy and well.

    • Thank you, Laura! Your responses are always so poetic.

      I wish we could have a dog or two, but our NYC co-op rules prevent it. I miss the greetings at the door and our walks, observing what – often disgusting objects – attracts their attention.

      I am eagerly awaiting the time when I don’t have to wear a mask on my walks so that I can get back to our forest preserve. The masks make it hard to breath if you try to walk at a good clip, so I’m limited to loops around our block. This, too, shall pass.

      Stay safe!

  9. Jeff Ikler I’m gonna send you my kleenex bill 🥺 That was an extremely powerful essay my friend, and the topic is probably one of my biggest concerns for the humanity!

    The program is written from the mommy’s belly to 6. The most beautiful frequency is theta where the kids are mixing reality and their imaginary world WHEN THEY ARE GIVEN THE SPACE.

    I don’t have children neither, but I’m a sciency, a lover and an observer (I had to develop my critical thinking skills to the highest levels after having almost been killed by a narcissistic psychopath); I’ve been studying the human behavior including kids; I’ve been in contact with tons of them, and know how fragile and unstoppable they could be depending on the guidance of the grownups!

    We have 2 options: 1. keep them connected to their gifted #talents they would be developing and with which they could do miracles if combined with the healthy subconscious program we’d been writing in alighnment with the principles and their original #being. 2. Slowly killing them from the inside when hijacking both who they are and what they can offer to the world in terms of do’es requiring all their creativity and a magnificient synergy between their left & right brains.

    I attended a networking event once and I was silently crying when listening to the “success story” of one of the panellits. The guy was bragging the exponential #growth of his video games company and the huge audience was impressed and clapping!

    I was talking to my self “you must be kidding me! What the hell are you applauding?! Are you satisfied of murduring your own kids?! How could you be so ignorant? Why can’t you make use of your self-awareness endowment we were ALL granted?!”

    That was so sad for me to witness… If every single kid could have stayed the same original creature, we would have been living in such a balanced extraordinary world… Those conditioned kids are unfortunately the future imbalanced adults — including who I was before my existential crisis and extremely painful adventure to drastically reinvent myself from within — who are adding more crap to the world on a daily basis.

    We can stop the hemorrhage whenever the awareness becomes global. That’s why I see this pandemic as a #blessing. Real transformations require a #trauma…

    I believe the play is not only a kids’ need. The biology makes of it an obligation for them. But if our inner kid is still #free and #alive, nothing will stop us from playing at any age! 💙

    • So thoughtful, Myriam. Thank you. I think you may be right – that the pandemic has blessings along with its curse. Also responded to you on your LinkedIn version.

  10. Jeff! You made me laugh a couple times out loud. Great article! You are spot on. My mother was the same and my childhood as I’ve shared was outdoors. Bad weather was the only reason to be indoors, and it wasn’t spent in front of the t.v.
    Milk duds, sugar babies, sweet tarts, licorice!
    “Milk Duds. Whoever came up with that blend of milk chocolate and caramel should be sainted.” so funny! I agree.

    • My wife still brings Milk Duds home for movie night. Funny, yes? Thanks for your read and comment. Glad this one landed for you.

  11. You know I am a big fan of getting outside, Jeff! I love your descriptions of summer outdoors, I have some similar fond memories. I idolized my big brother. So whatever he did, I did, too, including catching frogs and lizards, and exploring construction sites for materials for forts! Thanks for sharing, I can’t wait to see kids playing outside again.

    • Frog catching seems to be a favorite activity among us kids here. And exploring construction sites. Thanks, Sarah.

  12. Great story, Jeff! Thank you for your reframe of what kids today are managing with and without. My 3 sons absolutely loved the movie Sandlot, if you haven’t seen it I highly recommend it because your memories reminded me so much of the movie and of my sons’ escapades. I agree wholeheartedly with you that children need free play to manage stress and process the world around them – now more than ever. Our world has replaced all those wonderful lazy, imaginative, fort-building, frog-hunting, pollywog-catching, bike riding days with Instagram, Snapchat and all the other ways to compare your life to your friends’ highlight reel! I believe we are proliferating anxiety and narcissism with each year earlier in their lives that children have a screen instead of an experience. I fear for what our children will do when they are faced with the realities of life as grown-ups. They seem to have too few solid examples of what it means to experience a setback and to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start again, to be a true friend, to work with their hands, to enjoy the sunshine, the rain or just the moment they are experiencing (instead they are worrying if their ‘selfie’ is good enough to post). Even as I write this I am feeling grateful that my sons had all those years of old fashioned childhood (because they had an old-fashioned mom & dad) and that they understand where the true value in life lies – in real human to human experiences. I hope this experience of quarantine is the beginning of a renascence and a new focus on old fashioned good times. 🙂

    • Catherine – Thank you for your deep response. As I mentioned in the post, I don’t have kids, but if I did, I would want them to experience what I experienced – much of what you detail here. It just occurred to me as I read your response that many of those activities involved pushing our physical and mental boundaries. We were learning about ourselves. And one more thing – gosh your response prompted a lot for me – reading! My parents were Book of the Month club subscribers, and while I couldn’t read all those books, our shelves were filled with the classics. I remember being crushed when I finished the Bounty trilogy! Now reading isn’t play, but for me at least, it electrified my imagination. Thanks, Catherine.

  13. I love this one so much, Jeff. I was the tomboy who was out climbing trees and catching frogs while my sisters were often inside baking cookies or playing records. I’m totally with you about how outdoor play is so much more than sunshine and blue skies (as if that isn’t reason enough). It is such a catalyst for discovery and exploration and imagination. Thank you so much for taking me back to my childhood! I absolutely love the way you do that!

    • Climbing trees, yes! Tree forts aside, there was something magical about getting up inside a tree’s limbs and branches. It was certainly the view from up “there,” but it was more than that. It’s almost like we became part of the tree. Thanks for mentioning that.

      Frogs, eh? Ha!

    • Jane, you will have to share the ways we can play at work. We could all use some suggestions – especially these days. Thanks for your read and comment.

    • Love memory lane! My Muse is slow to take me there somedays for some reason. Thanks for your read and comment.

  14. Jeff, thank you for sharing your article. Kids do need to play outside, ride their bikes, skateboard and so on. To a degree, electronics have lessened that. Electronics have also to a degree pushed kids to be with other kids to show off their gadgetry. When we were growing up TV was thought to be a threat to our children’s development and social skills. That never came to be. When kids became teenagers there was the problem of drugs, drinking while driving and gang activity. Having raised three children I don’t see many changes from when I was growing up. These fads pass and more often than not children do grow up into well-adjusted adults. With this, we should not be alarmed by electronics. There are still Little Leagues, Hockey Leagues, Pop Football leagues, sports camps, and alike. I was never one of those parents who uttered the phrase “kids these days” since it probably was said by my parents as well. By the way, Jeff I loved the memories you shared. Stay safe and well.