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Jeff Byers: Sticking Up for Pick-Up Games

by on April 28, 2012 11:20 AM

Whatever happened to pick-up games? Are they still around? I sure hope so. I’ve been specifically driving around the area looking for kids playing sports with no adult supervision and direction and I’m just not seeing it.

I hope it’s still happening, though. I swore when I was a kid that I would never become one of those adults who told others how great it was “when I was a kid” because I always thought it inferred that kids somehow today were worse off. But I do wonder if kids today are getting the chance to be kids with other kids. I wonder if they are being given the same opportunities I had as a kid to just be a kid.

Many of my fondest memories as a kid were of playing in the neighborhood churchyard after school. We would gather and play football, whiffle ball, basketball or variations of those or other games. There was no one to tell us what the rules were, no outside arbiters - we decided the rules and came to a consensus on whether a tackle was made or not or whether a touchdown was scored. To be sure, there were arguments, the rare fight and various injuries, mostly of the minor variety requiring a band-aid or a drink of water.

This is not to suggest there weren’t some “moments.” Fists flew every once in a great while, there was a broken leg sustained one day and there was a severe bee sting reaction that led to hospitalization. But through all of the trauma of my friends and me playing pick-up games were lots and lots of great memories created and plenty of lessons learned.

There was creativity in creating the rules and even the boundaries for the games. We would have games consisting of three players some days, of 15 or more other days. We would challenge ourselves and try to create fair matchups so that everyone could join in the fun.

I’m not saying organized sports don’t have their place, and there is certainly plenty of benefit in being properly instructed in how to tackle or throw the ball or what the true rules of the game are. But there is also tremendous benefit in figuring out what works for you, in using individual creativity in problem-solving and rule-making.

There was a certain freedom in the those churchyard games. Nobody made us run a play over because something wasn’t done right. Nobody told you that was the right way to run a pattern. We just created our own games and played for ourselves and each other - not to satisfy an adult or anyone else. We kept score because we were competitive and we wanted to know who won, but as soon as it was over, we were all drinking and eating together and rarely did anyone get bent out of shape over questionable calls.

I really think the pick-up games helped us develop a certain social structure. You stood up for what you wanted or what you thought was right, but at the end of the day, the majority rule prevailed. Sometimes you could argue your way to a victory, sometimes you’d have your mind changed by someone else’s plea.

Maybe the games are still taking place, and I really hope that’s the case. Maybe I just don’t know where to find these games these days. But I fear that a combination of factors may be leading to the near-extinction of the pick-up games.

We didn’t have any football leagues in State College when I was growing up. You couldn’t play organized football until junior high school. So, if you wanted to play football before then, you had to play pick-up games.

While we had television and undoubtedly spent way too much time watching it, we didn’t have home computers as youngsters, and so in order to interact with other kids, we had to actually go out and play with them, not just Facebook them and have a “conversation” in our room.

We also didn’t seem to have quite the litigious mentality so that playing on school property after school hours or in the churchyard or pretty much anywhere else was a “play at your own risk” scenario where the owners of the property had little, if any fear, that a resulting injury might lead to a lawsuit.

While I think organized sports and other adult-supervised activities are fine for elementary-aged kids, I also think they should - and I would argue need to - have some time where they play their own games on their own terms and have the chance to figure out for themselves what does and doesn’t work.

Here’s hoping there are still opportunities and that kids are availing themselves of the chances to play pick-up games. It helps create a better neighborhood environment and makes for some wonderful memories later in life. In short, seeing more pick-up games would be a pick-me-up.

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Jeff Byers has been the wrestling team’s traveling announcer since 1990.
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