Where Have the Funleaders Gone?

Based on the number of viral posts and memes out there romanticizing a 70’s childhood, it appears that we long for a simpler upbringing for our children, one like we experienced.  We remember a more unstructured existence, filled with the freedom to roam, have no contact with parents, and to play with lots of friends of varying ages. The older kids often taught the younger kids the ropes. I didn’t learn how to ride a bike from my parents, but rather it was a mix of my older brother and a friend’s older brother. An older brother even taught me how to tie my shoes.  According to the memes, our moms were too busy smoking Virginia Slims and drinking a Tab to worry about teaching us something better left to an older sibling.

We remember those days as organic and free flowing with very little scheduling. The only scheduled class I ever had as a child was dance and that was done grudgingly by my mother. She usually flew home from work since I was a latch key kid, threw me in the car and we would pull up to a screeching halt at dance class at the last possible moment. I don’t remember her ever watching my practices. I have absolutely no idea what she did during that hour nor did I care. The minute I said I wasn’t crazy about dance she dropped it with no hesitation.

Today’s kids live a different existence and so do their ever vigilant, involved, uber caring parents. They have three sports going at once, music lessons, after school clubs, and on and on. The weekends are filled with competitive games and performances. One on one play dates are arranged by the parents up through middle school. It seems that you never see packs of kids playing together any more. Whenever I see a pack of kids playing in a neighborhood I almost stop my car and drink in the nostalgia.

But was it really as free flowing as we remember? Yes and no.

Yes, it was free flowing in that the days took a natural unforced direction. Groups of kids had to compromise and agree on games to play. Nothing was scheduled but fun was regular and so was boredom.

However, nothing would have happened without the “funleaders”. You remember them. They were the kids with natural, easy going leadership.  As extroverts, they weren’t afraid to go door to door to organize a baseball game or flashlight tag.  A “no” didn’t faze them at all. They understood that sometimes you could play and sometime you couldn’t. They didn’t take it personally. As time went by, they naturally emerged. When arguments started they usually helped settle them. They were good natured and natural organizers.

Even if we scheduled our children less and encouraged them to seek out unstructured play would the funleaders emerge?  Has society taken such a path that the funleaders don’t exist anymore? Did structure erase the funleaders?

I am happy to report that I believe the funleaders still exist, alive and well, but in today’s world a little underdeveloped.  Let me give you a recent example.

A few weeks ago I volunteered at my sixth grader’s team picnic for school. It was a team building and bonding experience. The sixth grade center is split up into four teams. Students from all over our district come together for the first time from six different elementary schools in sixth grade.

The first two hours of the picnic involved eight groups with approximately eight members playing eight different games or events every 15 minutes.  With another parent I was in charge of the “knots” game. It is played by the students forming a circle, shoulder to shoulder and reaching across the circle to grab another member’s hand. Each individual’s hand is supposed to grab a different person’s hand. The goal is to form a circle by untying the knot without letting go of anyone’s hand.

This exercise was illuminating about childhood leadership and fun. The best way to summarize what I discovered is to give the details of the most disparate groups.

Groups that struggled:

Group A: This was the most poorly behaved group. Several boys tried to take leadership but the girls were not having it. There was a serious boy/girl split in this group, even to the point of name calling and physically separating from each other. They failed the first time and we had to talk them into doing again. They were successful the second time but that did not help. They refused to do it a third time and sat around looking bored which resulted in arguing and general bad behavior. They seemed unhappy from the minute they walked up and it never got better. Leadership was grasped at and forced with very little success or fun.

Group B: This group had a smart, singular leader who was not unkind but did not seek input. They got close but were never successful. They seemed smart and diligent but not a lot of smiling or having fun. They worked long and hard and were frustrated in the end. They did not try again.

Groups that thrived:

Group C:  A lot of talk and cooperation amongst everyone, especially for the last group when they were hot and tired. Two different students took leadership but it was a loose, easy leadership. They formed two circles twice and tried a third time. They seemed to have fun. Another interesting aspect to note is that they walked up smiling and thanked the other parent and me at the beginning and end.

Group D:  This group had a fun, smiley, charismatic leader. His good nature kept everyone positive. He had no problem sharing leadership and sought input.  This group talked a lot and cooperated. They had quick success and wanted to do it a few times. This group laughed a lot.

A few observations:

The most successful groups were the most democratic and talked the most in respectful ways. When multiple voices were heard they solved the problem faster, leaders were most successful when they were positive and upbeat. Strong, directive leaders sometimes got the job done but the group didn't seem as happy and willing to do it again. Having fun and a cooperative, democratic spirit were definitely key aspects to quick success and wanting to keep going.

The groups that thrived had funleaders. They smiled a lot, sought input, stopped disagreements before they ever started and kept the energy lively. They created a sense of positive group energy that was infectious. It was enjoyable to watch them in action.

So yes, funleaders clearly still exist and probably always will. My concern is that today’s world makes it harder and harder for them to emerge and fully develop. Funleaders seem to require less structure rather than more. One might argue that sports, playgroups, clubs and other activities support emerging leadership. This is true but the childhood packs of our youth seem unmatched for developing organic leadership.

If you suspect your child is a natural funleader how can you encourage and help them develop this strength with today’s schedules, screen focus and stranger danger world?  A few thoughts come to mind. Hopefully you will have more.

Multi-age play:

One element we have gotten away from are the groups from our youth where kids of varying ages played together.  Encourage your older child to take his/her younger siblings and friends, and neighbors along. I have a neighbor who is particularly good at this. I see their four children and friends playing together all the time and I love it. This fosters a natural mentor type relationship that our children don't get exposed to enough today.

Outdoor play:

Get them outdoors. Our homes are so appealing with all the screens and comfort that they get plenty of indoor time. Until they naturally are drawn to outdoor play give them incentives for getting outside. I have friends whose children “earn” indoor screen time with outdoor time. I’m not sure about this one but if it works it might be worth a try. I also have friends who give no choice. Outdoor play is a must in their home. You might have to try to few things to get them outdoors regularly but keep trying until they figure out how much fun it is!

Reducing the scheduled activities:

This is a tough one but trust in a less scheduled existence. It will be easier on you, and your child will likely benefit from it. In this case, the opposite of structure isn’t doing nothing. It means less structured play. It seems like I’m contradicting myself but in the beginning until it becomes more self-propelled you might have to help your child schedule the unstructured play. In today’s world older kids might use social media to organize play.

In the end, you know your own child like no one else. If you think you have an extroverted funleader on your hands, then they might benefit from the suggestions for larger, multi-age groups and outdoor play.  If that style of play isn’t quite right for them then find the sweet spot for their own personal growth and happiness. You know best!