When I was a kid there was a vacant field in the middle of our block. It was a place from which almost all of us could hear our mothers calling when it was time for dinner, but it was hidden away just enough that we could pretend we didn’t.
The best times were when enough kids showed up to get a real game going. Sometimes it was wiffle ball, sometimes kickball, sometimes it was a game that we made up on the spot.
Always there was bickering, there was negotiating, there was reconciliation.
Sometimes we all went home mad, but some days we had to be dragged out of there yelling promises to meet again first thing tomorrow.
In the sports world this is called “playing pick-up,” and it is a lost art.
Wikipedia describes “pick-up” as, “A game that has been spontaneously started by a group of players. Pick-up games are often played with a less rigid set of rules which are sometimes established by the players themselves.”
For a kid, do you know what is so great about pick-up?
You own it. Your mom didn’t sign you up, your dad didn’t drive you, no coach is deciding what happens next, there are no lectures, no directions, if it’s boring you renegotiate the terms. You figure it out as you go and it’s YOUR thing.
And that’s powerful. Kids figure things out when there is no one telling them what to do. All people have more enthusiasm for a path of their own choosing. It’s amazing what we can accomplish when it’s something we want done and not something someone else wants us to do.
Playing pick-up is how I learned A LOT about working with others, what’s reasonable and what is not, how to get the outcome you desire.
The concept of pick-up doesn’t just apply to sports games. Think of other self-directed activities kids do: science exploration (ie. dropping rubber balls from the second story window, digging in a rotten log for salamanders), building, reading (whether comic books, field guides, fashion magazines), all sorts of things. It works if kids are driving it.
The trick is to give kids a little space to pursue their interests. It’s not easy to do. We aren’t used to it anymore. We’ve filled their time with a million other things. Not to mention: when kids are playing pick-up correctly, it can look a lot like goofing off.
But every kid needs a little vacant lot time, a little time to choose a course of action, and then work out the kinks along the way.
For the quintessential celebration of pick-up sports culture in America, see the 1993 movie The Sandlot or the 2012 YA anthology of sequential short stories, Pick-Up Game: A Full Day of Full Court.
For more reading on this topic try When Play Was Play: Why Pick-Up Games Matter by Ronald Bishop.