Kickball game? I can pencil one in next month.

A few weeks ago, Holland Gibson met a few friends, walked to the school playground, and played kickball. It would be an unremarkable event, but for the fact that it was the only pickup game the thin-limbed fourth grader can ever remember playing.

For most of the past century, pickup games have been seen as a rite of youth in which kids learned about life - from the glory of the game-winning hit to the disappointment of being picked last. Today, they are becoming an anachronism.

Squeezed by piano lessons and sports camps, cyberspace and parents grown fearful of letting kids leave the house alone, parent-free playtime is on the decline - and the sense of loss may be more than nostalgic. As more childhood activities become scripted, some sociologists say, kids are left with less time to learn to navigate the world on their own.

No one is suggesting that kids who don't play pickup games are bound to end up maladjusted or antisocial. Yet many parents and experts see the trend as another example of how children's lives are being increasingly overscheduled - and signs of a backlash are already apparent.

"Pickup games are a really important part of the socialization process of young males - and all kids," says Stuart Brown, head of the Institute for Play in Carmel Valley, Calif. "The big value is to choose up sides, change the rules if you have to, and deal with a group dynamic when parents are not there."

Evidence of their decline in suburban areas is mounting.

Fewer kids playing sports

Aside from anecdotal reports during the past decade, the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA) in North Palm Beach, Fla., has found statistical traces as well. According to recently released data, participation in team sports among children six years old and older is down. But almost without exception, numbers for organized youth sports, like soccer leagues, are up.

"The only real conclusion is that pickup play is declining," says Gregg Hartley, SGMA vice president.

Like other observers, he adds that perhaps the primary reason for the dropoff is that kids today simply have more to do.

Living in the nearby white-collar community of Northbrook, Ill., the Gibsons have countless options for activity and enrichment.

Seventh-grader Janie spends much of her free time on acting and musical theater, in addition to piano lessons and running track.

Her brother Holland is a pocket encyclopedia of astronomical trivia, who likes tennis, the family I-Mac computer, and is enrolled in a course about the big- bang theory this summer.

"If you want to be good at anything, you could find a place to go here to be good at it," says mother Denise Gibson, whose close-cropped brown hair and flashing eyes exude energy. "There is a subtle pressure to take advantage."

It is this pressure to eke as much as possible out of every academic and athletic opportunity that leaves many children with hours of homework a night and long practices for traveling teams.

Too busy for playtime

While those are worthy pursuits, some experts say, they often leave kids with no time to be kids.

"There is a tremendous pressure on kids for performance," says Mr. Brown, "and that is antithetical to open play."

Mrs. Gibson has tried to set some limits for her children. She lets them participate in only one after-school activity at a time during the school year.

Besides Holland's short summer class, she refuses to sign her kids up for summer camps, saying, "They're children, and they should have time to lay around in their jammies or go out and ride bikes."

She hasn't fomented a revolution yet, but Gibson says she's persuaded some other local parents to keep their kids out of summer camps, too.

The same sentiment exists nationwide, experts say, as they sense the beginnings of a backlash.

"Parents are getting a stronger sense that having everything organized is not always a good thing," says John Harris, a sociologist at Franklin Pierce College in Rindge, N.H. "The period of time when organized sports are the automatic option will decrease in the next five to 10 years, as parents realize that kids need time to relax."

Even if this happens, though, other cultural forces might keep pickup games from ever reaching the popularity they had during the days of sandlot baseball.

A basketball team of one

High-schooler Drew Brady often shoots hoops alone here in Johns Park because many of his classmates are more interested in the Internet than a game of two-on-two.

"People are getting lazy," says the dark-haired senior, catching his breath. "They can just sit at home and surf the Internet or watch TV."

For younger kids, coming to the park might not even be an option.

Gibson, for example, is only now letting Holland and Janie venture to local parks alone. Oftentimes, she'll still go out every 15 minutes to make sure they're safe.

It's an increasingly common scenario, as parents in general seem to be becoming more cautious, even as crime figures show safer neighborhoods.

"We're being sent messages all the time [through TV shows, ads, and the news] that the place around us isn't safe, no matter what the statistics say," says Mr. Harris.

"Parents seem to be unnecessarily fearful of the world around them."

Parents must be sensible, he adds, "but it's much more unhealthy to keep kids locked away because of fear."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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