If I say the word GANG, what do you immediately think?
If your mind goes to guns, violence, trouble-making, law-breaking, motor bike riding, or people of varying social destructive degrees, then you are like me, and I would imagine most other adults in the community.
Which is why you may also be surprised to hear that my wife and I were over the moon when our daughter proudly informed us that she had joined a gang! She roped her younger brother in too…
My daughter Lily is nine years old, and Ralphie is two and they are part of a nine-member neighbourhood gang of kids, aged 10 to two years old, who call themselves THE ARROW HEAD GANG.
These are the SIX PARENTAL STEPS we took to support our children’s successful gang membership.
Click each heading for a more detailed explanation:
Gangs may have a bad reputation in current mass media messaging, but gangs can also foster amazing feelings of comradery, mateship, teamwork, diversity, acceptance, leadership, character building, emotional intelligence development, support and a sense of belonging.
This is precisely what we have witnessed our kids getting from their gang membership.
In our street there are 13 children, however an outside would think that there are only nine kids – which is the number of kids in The Arrow Head Gang – the children who have chosen to not join the gang are rarely seen or heard.
Interestingly the street parallel to ours has at least six children that we know of, and just beyond them, at least another 10-12 of various ages. They are all close to one another, some go to the same school, catch the bus together etc - but they don’t connect locally for play or friendship at all!
Which is why the concept of gangs is so important for our kids to experience group dynamics and social interaction. And parents should be facilitating ways for their kids to form a neighborhood gang.
The image of children playing outside in their neighbourhoods for the most part, is a thing of the past.
Most of today’s children spend much of their time indoors or doing planned play activities.
Many of us live in neighbourhoods where we don’t know if there are other kids living in our street or even know the kids next door.
But having a group of easily accessible play friends is a child’s ultimate desire, as well as the best way for our children to learn, test and hone many important life skills, habits and develop interests and identity.
Humans are highly social animals and children are hard wired developmentally for social connection.
As an example of this, I was recently told by a mother of a six-year old girl, that she knew there were kids next door, but had yet to take the initiative to introduce themselves and meet for play.
The daughter, so hungry for play, took it into her own hands, and started writing notes, sticking them onto balls and throwing them over the fence for the neighbouring kids to read. They now play together regularly. Genius!
I know I will sounds nostalgic – and old - but when I was lad, my childhood was series of childhood gangs.
We were groups of local friends, roaming together around green spaces, parks, streets, from friend’s house to friend’s house.
In these groups, our need for belonging was satisfied. To a certain degree we lived each other’s lives, walked in each other’s shoes. We developed a sense of each other’s families, and in some cases became extended members of those families. We developed empathy for each other during tough times, and learnt about difference, diversity and acceptance.
In these groups we were safe in each other’s company, nurtured by each other’s friendship, supported by each other’s companionship.
Sure we did dangerous things - dared each other, pushed each other’s boundaries. We succeeded and failed, triumphed and got hurt. But we learnt to navigate risk and no one got left behind.
I remember doing a wheelie on my bike all the way from the local store to home, I jumped off the bridges and trees into creeks and rivers, I climbed higher in the tree, jumped further on my bike, and tried harder and harder to build better cubbies, hide-outs, and secret bases. I extended myself and learnt so much because of the gangs I was privileged to be a part of.
We fought, argued, debated, lost our tempers, sometimes hurt each other and stormed off.
We also made-up, said sorry, learnt the value of humility and forgiveness.
Compromised because we valued our friendship above all.
We learnt that one good friend was all you need, but a gang of good friends amplified the opportunities, the adventure and the fun.
We were mobile, we hiked, ran, rode our bikes, swam across creeks and rivers, explored and adventured everywhere around our local area.
We knew our communities and we knew our neighbourhoods - inside and out.
We knew the dangers and safe places to go. We developed an ownership of our neighbourhoods to the degree if we found out something bad happened we felt obliged to find out all the details and if possible, play a part in fixing it.
We felt responsible for protecting our neighbourhood culture, because we were active in it, we were a part of it. The neighbourhood was who we were.
The Arrow Head Gang play-out most afternoons and weekends. They are free to roam the street and spend the majority of the time either in each other’s cubby houses, swimming pools, in my shed, up trees and playing varied made up games such as families, teenagers, aboriginals, robbers and security guards, sardines. They ride their bikes or scooters, swing on the swings, monkey bars and other play equipment, and many other activities. They are constantly on the go, constantly moving and constantly active.
Like my childhood, they too also seem to be constantly negotiating and arguing, which leads to fighting at times and sometimes hitting. Sometimes they need breaks from each other and play separately, but they always work it out. Always.
I would say that for The Arrow Head Gang, having FUN is the objective most of the time - however only some of the time is FUN is achieved.
This friendship group of outdoor players took about two years to bond and form a strong value and love of outdoor free play. They have been playing together for four years now and know each other inside-out. Their strengths and their weaknesses.
It has taken the parents the same amount of time to build the trust needed to ensure the kids are able to play outdoors freely, be as mobile as they are now, and play safely.
Today as a grown man, I long for the friendships, trials and triumphs of those days. I long for the regular connection with my friends, the adventures, the laughter and fun.
More so, I long for this type of freedom for my children.
For our kids to discover and know in their hearts a world they can create.
To know that with effort, motivation, risk, and teamwork, you can achieve and be anything you want.
To know in their hearts the magic and wonder of the natural world.
To know the value of friends and how to be a good friend themselves.
To develop a strong sense of identity and trust in who they are as individuals.
I think most of us grown-ups have forgotten that this is what we learnt when played in gangs.
But this is what my children are getting from The Arrow Head Gang.
What happened to our neighbourhoods? When did they disappear? Did it happen overnight or slowly over time? Regardless, the neighbourhood I just described is, for most parts, gone. But as The Arrow Head Gang is proving, our neighbourhoods can be reclaimed as a place for play.
In my role as the Program Manager of Nature Play QLD I know that daily outdoor free play is so essential for children and is as important for their health as adequate daily nutrition.
The Arrow Head Gang is a practical way of ensuring our children has this type of childhood.
It hasn’t been easy, we have made many mistakes, and have had to correct our thinking and actions to realign with nurturing an outdoor free play culture in our neighbourhood.
However for the most part, for us, it has been about getting out the way of our children’s play.
The Arrow Head Gang set the rules.
From our experience here are the six-steps we have taken to support our kids getting into a gang:
- We kept in mind the bigger picture - what will our children get out of this type of childhood?
- We were prepared to be challenged by our children’s play choices.
- We made decisions related about saying yes or no to outdoor play requests based on long term social needs of our kids.
- We checked our fears against the realities of the outcomes for our kids, in relation to the outdoor activities they are wanting to do. Are our fears based on ‘real risk’ or ‘anomalies’ or perceived dangers?
- We prioritised fostering a love of healthy, active outdoor free play over the need to keep our kids safe from potential perceived dangers.
- We stopped saying no as the default response.
- We went out and observed our children’s outdoor play behaviour as individuals and as a group.
- We got to know what the children were doing, how they were doing it, and each of their skill levels.
- We got to know our kids’ attitudes towards risk, self-assessment and self-regulation.
- We monitored for signs that our children were wanting to extend themselves in their play and supported this where possible.
- The AHG argue and debate, which at times results in fighting and fracturing of the group. We learnt that the fracturing is temporary, and to resist intervening and to let them sort it out on their own
- This has resulted in greater ownership of their friendships, their actions, and policing of each other’s behaviour.
- We let them fail, when no serious injury is obvious. It is a great teacher.
- If it looks like some intervention is needed because there is danger in the outdoor activity or bullying behavior is starting to show-up, then we have learnt that by asking questions to the group, we can sometimes help them to self-regulate and learn.
- We only intervene when imminent danger is highly likely.
- We formed relationships and got to know one another and build trust.
- We swapped phone numbers and email addresses.
- We checked in with how our kids were behaving at each other’s houses.
- We made the effort to sit down and get to know each other more.
- We familiarised our kids with the neighbourhood, the parks, green spaces, track and trails, creeks and rivers.
- We rode with our kids around the neighbourhood. Taught them road rules, showed them danger spots, what to look out for, and observed their skill levels.
- We gave them opportunities to lead, and observed their sensibilityk, responsibility, and their decisions to see if they were developing the skills to move around safely and independently.
- We helped the AHG decide on a date and time.
- We helped the AHG develop invitations.
- We took the AHG around the community to deliver the invites.
- We helped the AHG to make signs for the street party.
- We helped the AHG make up damper-on-a-stick for all who attended.
- We put on tea and coffee for the grown-ups, and water for the kids.
- We put out chairs and picnic blankets for the grown-ups.
- We talked to the other grown-ups about why we are helping the AHG get more members.
We continue to learn so much about the value of The Arrow Head Gang in our children’s lives.
As they grow older, the connection with gang members is what keeps them playing outdoors.
The gang is a huge contributor to supporting their formation of healthy life habits, important social skills and supporting their overall health, wellbeing and a high quality of life.
My wife, Fran and I, are now pro-gangs all the way!