“They can play in their backyard.” Quebec Soccer Federation executive director Brigitte Frot, explaining the options available to 5-year-old boys in turbans who wants to play soccer.
On June 2, 2013 the Quebec Soccer Federation (QSF) defied the Canadian Soccer Association’s guidelines and banned turban wearing kids from playing organized soccer in the province. They said it was due to “safety concerns”, but were unable to cite specific incidents where injuries were caused by turbans.
The QSF’s ban on turban wearing soccer players is, at best, ludicrous, and at worst, racist. Critics claimed the QSF was making a political, anti-immigration statement. They may be right, but the collective reaction to the QSF’s ban makes a clear statement about how little we value children’s “free play”.
Bridgette Frot was correct when she said “They can play in the backyard”. She’s responding to the rhetoric that the QSF ruling prevented kids who wear turbans from playing soccer; it doesn’t. The ruling simply meant that kids who wear turbans couldn’t participate in organized soccer controlled by the QSF. Unfortunately, for many parents, organized activities are the only form of children’s play that matter.
Growing up in the north of England I didn’t play organized sports of any form until ten years old when I was chosen for my school soccer team. Despite this, I don’t remember an age when my life didn’t revolve around soccer. I played two or three hours a day in various pick-up games, on the street, at the park with friends or during recess.
This is how most kids around the world play, then and now. Most nights I left our house after supper and my parents had no idea where I was going, nor did they ask. Their only expectation was that I was home before dark and didn’t get into trouble. And they trusted me to do that. I roamed the streets, had adventures, got into scrapes, and along the way learned I could handle myself in the world without a supervising adult.
When I came to Canada things were different. Soccer wasn’t played in the streets or at the local park. It was highly organized with registrations and teams and coaches and practices and schedules and referees and try-outs and on and on. My parents drove me to games and stood on the sidelines with other parents. Playing soccer was no longer something I did on my own, it was something my family and I did together.
Many people are questioning why we don’t give children more independence. In April 2008 Lenore Skenazy armed her nine-year old with a subway map, a Metro card and some money, left him in downtown New York City and trusted him to find his way home. He did, and the subsequent public reaction to her attempt to build independence in her child, lead Skenazy to create the Free Range Kids “movement”. She encourages parents to treat their child as “…a smart, young, capable individual, not an invalid who needs constant attention and help…”.
There’s been lots of discussion about the importance of failure in children’s learning lately. What’s missing from this discussion is an acknowledgement that only when children are independent can they really experience failure. The presence of in-charge adults lowers the stakes for children. Adults won’t, or can’t, let kids fail, but it’s the risk of real unprotected failure that brings forth new skills and understanding.
Surrounding kids in layers of protection is ultimately disrespectful and prevents them from developing independence and self-confidence. Parenting guru Barbara Coloroso wrote in her terrific book Kids Are Worth It:
“It is usually best to allow kids to experience the consequences of their mistakes and poor choices, which are theirs to own. So long as the consequences aren’t physically, mentally, or morally threatening.”
We need to start trusting kids and valuing child-organized and controlled activities. When we organize activities for kids we rob them of the opportunity to develop autonomy. Kids all over the world operate autonomously, often because they have to. Our own kids, and those we teach, are capable of doing the same and in doing so will be better for it.
Thankfully, the QSF’s ban on turban playing soccer players has been lifted. I hope that, because of it, a few more people understand that the presence of adults in children’s play isn’t an entirely good thing. Kids don’t need a league, a coach, a referee or a provincial soccer federation to have a game of soccer. All they need is a couple of friends, a space and a ball or suitable substitute. In return they develop independence, self-confidence and, hopefully, an understanding that the joy of play isn’t something controlled by self-important adults. It’s something inside them.