Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Power of Unstructured Play

I was simply so blown away by this article that I just had to post and share this, although it seems I am the last to know about it. I think reading this really helped alleviate my motherly guilt over not constantly coming up with "things to do" for my kids. I am always battling with myself if I have been home for two or more days that I didn't take them out to do something "constructive." Even since I started homeschooling it's this constant feeling of "I need or should be DOING something with the kids" as opposed to just letting them run wild. Perhaps I could learn a lesson from Cain and his father. DOING NOTHING in fact helps build our children's creativity. Even reading this I was having flashbacks of my childhood; summers spent at my grandmother's making the "cliche" lemonade stand out of cardboard and selling cups for .25 or .50 cents. Or playing TRAP, a game my cousin and I made up when were bored on those long, hot summer days, where we would make traps out of cardboard, string, tape, (whatever we could find around the house) and strategically place them around the house, and see who would fall in the TRAP first. Like Cain, our time was unstructured and minimally supervised. We never created anything as elaborate as this arcade, but that doesn't diminish the importance of this kind of freedom children need, away from TV, electronics, and the overall unnecessary distractions we as parents may be placing before them.

What Caine’s Arcade Teaches Us About Modern Parenting

It is possible. Because here is what a nine year-old named Caine Monroy did last summer vacation during the weekdays: nothing.  He didn’t have summer camp, swimming lessons, soccer league, violin practice, a Mandarin tutor or anything that could even remotely be called an “enrichment activity.” He was not chauffeured around by his parents, babysitter or nanny on trips to a museum, to the zoo, or to any local historical sites of note. Other than what I suspect were several trips to Shakey’s Pizza and time spent in the Shakey’s Pizza arcade, this is how Caine Monroy spent a lot of his time last summer vacation: He played. And out of his unstructured playtime came the amazing, highly complex, wildly creative and now truly viral phenomena known as Caine’s Arcade.
Over 2.5 million Vimeo & YouTube views and $175,000 dollars later, this is what I think George Monroy—Caine’s dad—teaches us about modern parenting:
Give kids some resources, but not too many.
George Monroy’s parenting reminds me of how I was raised by my old-school immigrant Latino parents: I was given enough things to spark my imagination, but not too much. My sister and I got ball gowns from thrift stores and played dress-up for hours. My sister actually made her own Barbie Dreamhouse out of cardboard. It had wallpaper (made out of wrapping paper) and wine goblets (made out of twisted tinfoil). It was awesome.
Caine was given space in the front of the store, markers, scissors and all the cardboard a kid could ever need or want. When Caine told his dad he “needed to buy” a claw machine, George challenged him to try and make one. And so he did. With blue yarn, an S-hook and yet another cardboard box, a DIY claw machine was born.
George did give Caine more resources when it became evident that Caine was clearly committed to his vision. We see no better proof of that than the calculators taped to each machine, which Caine uses to verify the fun passes using the “check mark button” known by math geeks everywhere as the square root symbol.
What Caine's Arcade Teaches Us About Modern Parenting
Give kids time. Lots of it.
This was, no doubt, the most precious gift George Monroy gave to his son Caine: largely unstructured, minimally supervised time. A regular question among my friends and I who have children is “What are you going to do with [insert kid’s name here] for the summer?” The assumption is that our children will have some type of ordered activity, program, or instruction during this free time. I have not tried it yet, but after watching this video, I am tempted to answer the question with something along the lines of “Oh, you know, the basics.  Keep her safe. Fed. Clothed. That’s about it.”
By my calculation, Caine Monroy had about 280 hours of free time to kill last summer. And boy, did he make it count.
Give kids basic, clear rules.
The impression the video gives is that Caine was told three main things: Be safe. Stay at the front of the store. And let daddy work. Kids like some rules and basic structure—it gives them the sense that the world is an orderly place. Kids also do understand the unspoken implications of the rules, too. “Let daddy work” was code for “I am not here to entertain you.  You will need to find ways to fight boredom on your own. Here is some cardboard for you to play with. Now get creative.”
Encourage kids to do what they like. Even if you think it is stupid. This way, they stay focused. And being focused and going deep are key.
I freely admit this here and now: If my 10-year-old had displayed a wild, passionate interest in video arcades, I would have tried to squash it. Had the interest proved persistent, I would have tried to channel it into what I deemed was an appropriate outlet, i.e. “Let’s go to the library to check out books about arcades! Yaaay!” Sir Ken Richardson, renowned scholar and advocate on the importance of creativity, indicts our entire educational system for this type of behavior that is done with the best of intentions, but has unintended consequences for ourselves and our children. “You were probably steered benignly away from things at school when you were a kid,” he said in his now famous TED talk. “Things you liked—on the grounds that you would never get a job doing that: ‘Don’t do music, you’re not going to be a musician. Don’t do art, you won’t be an artist.’ Benign advice—now, profoundly mistaken.”
This is why I was so impressed with George Monroy: There is not one bit of judgment in his voice when he says that Caine loves arcades. Instead of trying to encourage Caine to try and build other things with cardboard boxes, he encourages Caine to stick with what he knows and loves by encouraging his love of arcades. This is surely why Caine’s Arcade became more elaborate as time went on, with the tickets, the fun passes and the staff t-shirts. It is Caine’s focus and his attention to detail that make his Arcade so amazing. And it is his discipline in sticking with his original vision that is so wondrous.
Modern parenting sometimes feel like a race to expose your kids to as many things as possible. But sometimes a little bit of everything is a whole lot of nothing. Caine may not have known about viral video and the power of social media, but he had deep knowledge of arcades. He stayed focused on what he was building, going deep into things like pricing strategy (5 games for one dollar, 500 for two) and customer research (putting toy soldiers as goalies for his cardboard soccer game when he heard that it would be too easy to score a goal). Then Caine met someone who did know about viral video and the power of social media—LA based filmmaker Nirvan Mullick—and the rest became history.
And finally, the most important lesson of all:  Get the Fun Pass.
It is a way better deal.

Sunday, September 9, 2012


Recently my daughter has been asking a lot of questions and most of the time they begin with "Mama, do you remember when...." I find it so interesting to hear what she recalls and how far back she can remember certain events since she is only four. I was also interested in what memories specifically stuck with her. I began to reflect on my own childhood, a complicated one to say the least. What do I remember? What has stayed with me now at my prime age of 30? I have trouble sometimes recalling what I did the day before, where I put certain items, I can barley remember the names of my high school and college teachers, although a few remain intact in my memory; my high school math teacher, Ms. Tracy and English teacher, Mr. Mc. Mahon....that's about it. But I was trying to focus on my childhood and how far back I could remember and what those memories consisted of. To my surprise my strongest memories of my childhood are those of when I was most afraid, and those of when I was most carefree, and engaging in all forms of unstructured play.

I remember picking  blackberries off the rooftops of my neighbors home in the small city of Baalbeck, Lebanon. They were so plump and juicy and they would stain my hands. We would play in the alleys of the rubble filled streets playing hopscotch and racket ball.

I remember walking through the woods in New Mexico with a group of kids collecting berries and scraps of wood, and leaves making up a play about kings and queens which we later presented to our parents.

I remember watching The Little Mermaid when it first came out in theater.

I remember spending endless summer days on the streets of Sunnyside, Queens, where all the children from the neighborhood would come out to play from morning until night. All sorts of fun and games would fill our time. I would ride my bike with my cousin and all his friends all over Sunnyside Queens, having adventures, exploring the city, riding where ever the wind would take us.

I remember spending summers at my grandmother's home in Lower East Side Manhattan; no backyards or quiet streets, this was the inner city in all its glory. I would always be downstairs with my cousin and the kids from the building playing Johnny Come Over, Red Light Green Light 123, Monkey in the Middle, Freeze Tag, Man Hunt, Dodge ball....its so interesting how I hadn't thought of these times in so long, but my how much fun it was to be so carefree and young! During those hot summer days my cousin and I would often make pitchers of lemonade, take a box top, put the pitcher and some plastic cups in it and go around the neighborhood selling cups of lemonade for .25 cents, we would collect all our money at the end of the day and rent movies or buy goodies from the local bodega.

I think about these memories and hope to create even better memories for my children. I think the best way to do that is to give them the same freedom my family gave me, the freedom to have adventures and explore the world. To do this I must provide them with these opportunities. I hope to be able to achieve this through our journey of homeschooling and travel inshaallah.

Coming from a single parent household, we were not under the constant watchful eyes of an adult. Often times I would leave early and come back at night from riding bike, going to parks, playing with friends, walking around the neighborhoods etc. Whether I was in NY or Baalbeck it was the same, adults did not feel the need to constantly be present. Now adays parents are afraid to let their children into their own backyards for fear of falling, getting dirty, being murdered or kidnapped, getting hit by a car.  While these fears are valid kids are going to fall and get hurt and get dirty. We now have become accustomed to keeping our kids locked indoors and use electronics, TV, and computer games as entertainment. I'm not sure if we are really leaving in a world that has become more dangerous or if our fears are getting the best of us.