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Why Sticks Are Good For Kids

As nature gives way to video games, consider letting your kid wield that branch.

Summer will be upon us in a few weeks. This means that as playground romps have become a blessed respite from hang-gliding down two flights of stairs (or perhaps that's just my kids), I've begun to see a familiar ritual. It involves an anguished parent-- admittedly, it's usually a Mom-- demanding that her child PUT. THAT. STICK. DOWN. (No, Jacob, seriously, PUT THE STICK DOWN. JACOB!!... NOW!!!!)

Oh, geez.

Is it really that horrible to let a young kid wield a stick? Maybe it's their pretend fishing pole (I've seen it), their implement for digging for treasure (I've seen it), their triumphant torch declaring their sense of Olympian-like immortality, if only for a fleeting moment (I've most definitely seen it). Somehow, instead, to parents supervising the playground, it might as well be a firearm. There seems to be some sort of zero-tolerance policy for any and all sticks these days, one I've cringed at and that seems to be getting worse over the eight years I've been clocking in at playgrounds.

And I'm not the only one who's noticed. A while ago, I was commiserating with the director of our cooperative nursery school about this. She happily lets kids play with sticks on the playground, as long as they're using them safely and appropriately. And she frets that by having them totally off-limits, kids never get to learn how to do just that. (For the record, she wryly adds, in her decades of letting kids do this, she's never once witnessed a significant injury-by-stick.)

Why do our kids constantly have to hear how "bad" natural things are? Why must they be chastised for being physical and creative and -- dare I say it -- possibly a little sooty? We're not talking guns here. We're not talking baseball bats swung precariously near roving toddler's heads. We're talking sticks, the things that are used to build homes for animals. The things that are -- let's face it --- just parts of trees (which are the things that, for some reason, kids aren't allowed to climb anymore either.)

The more we teach our kids that nature is dangerous, creativity is out of bounds and physicality is not to be tolerated, the more I worry for our society. We're fine with children hammering their thumbs on whatever acronym-laden device we've bought for them to make sure they stay quiet and their clothes stay clean. (Ah, for the days when "Leapfrog" was an actual physical game, actually played outside, rather than a gadget designed to keep them sedentary!) But let them grab something that helps them learn balance, respect other's space and create a world of pretend play -- and yes, just might be a bit dirty and prickly -- and we act like they're on their way to juvenile delinquency.

I'm certainly not on board with letting things degenerate into Lord of the Flies territory. And I've definitely had to intervene on more than one occasion when a stick was used to intimidate, threaten, or perhaps to get a little too gung-ho in a full-contact swordfight. Yes, it takes a smidge of extra energy to help kids learn where to draw the line. Tantalizingly, an all-or-none approach would sometimes let my fanny find its way back to the park bench a lot more quickly; it can be a heck of a lot easier and more convenient to forget the gradations and just declare "No!". But let's not kid ourselves that it's for the children's sake.

So, in the playground of my dreams, sticks are allowed. So is dirt. So are puddles (yup, I'm one of those parents, too.) It's well worth a bit of effort and a tub of Oxi-Clean. And as for the danger? I'm wagering that the long-term effects of staring at screens are a heck of a lot more frightening.

copyright Andrea Bonior, Ph.D.

Andrea Bonior is a licensed clinical psychologist, media commentator, professor, and author of The Friendship Fix and the Washington Post Express's longtime advice column Baggage Check.

Want more? Follow her on twitter @drandreabonior or Facebook.

Photo credit: Yi Chen

Photo credit: Mads Bodker

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