Once upon a time kids used to play ball on their own, free of adult supervision. When, in my youth, I was looking for tennis, I’d call up a friend. If he was available, we’d hop on our bikes and meet at a local court to hit and compete. At other times, I’d go to a playground or, in winter time, a local gym to play basketball. Usually, other friends of mine were already there playing. Sometimes, though, I played with whoever happened to be there. That’s why we called it “pick-up” basketball. As for baseball, I played hardball only one season in the local little league. But my friends and I played lots of softball in the summer at a park or playground. Nothing was formally organized or supervised- it was our space, no grown-ups around, and we wanted it that way. I suspect our parents did as well.  

That world still existed, in diminished form, when I returned to Newton in the 1980s to live and to work. I could always find pick-up basketball somewhere, first in Newton Centre Playground and then in the newly minted Cold Spring Park. The players were numerous, the competition fierce because if your team lost, you had to sit and wait to play again. Tennis, though no longer as popular as in the 1970s, still had its dedicated core. I found tennis buddies in the Centre and also at clubs in the area. Pick-up adult softball games also existed, often on Sunday morning on the fields of one elementary school or another. Many adults, to be sure, rejected conventional sports and embraced jogging and riding bicycles long distances.

But what about the kids? Apparently, the world had changed in that children and young adults engaged only in organized activities. That remains true today. Drive around the Garden City and the only youth athletics you’ll find involve teams with uniforms, coached by adults, usually parents. Lots of folks play tennis on Newton’s courts, but how many of them are under thirty? Hardly any except in the city’s clinics or on the high school teams in the spring. As for baseball, little leagues still flourish though the number of participants has declined. But how often do kids gather on their own to play baseball or softball? The same goes for basketball; Cold Spring’s courts are largely vacant from what I observe. One activity has attracted a core of adherents: Ultimate Frisbee, a rising sport in the twenty-first century for young adults, largely in their twenties.

In the fall, soccer still rules youth sports, at least in the number of participants. Outside of organized play, however, how often do kids gather just to hit and to play? Adults play soccer pick-up style, to be sure…but not the younger generation, not even out of season.

It saddens me that for young people, informal athletic competition seems a thing of the past. Having adults organize almost everything children do when they are not online seems wrong somehow. I gained a certain independence fending for myself and negotiating with my peers when we were in charge of our own activities. Sometimes, no doubt, bad things happened, but having to sort out, on our own, disputes, arguments, even fights provided an important learning opportunity. As children lead increasingly regimented and supervised existences, they may be losing an essential experience: managing their own activities.