In 2014, police killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice as he played with a toy gun at a Cleveland recreation center. Ma’Khia Bryant was 16 when she was killed by police, also in Ohio. In Orlando, six-year-old Kaia Rolle was arrested at school for throwing a temper tantrum.
In the United States, Black children are routinely adultified, dehumanized, criminalized, and at times murdered by police—often in educational spaces where they should feel safe to play. Research has identified play as essential to children’s social, emotional, cognitive, physical, and linguistic development. In particular, research has linked play to the positive development of children’s social skills, self-esteem, emotional expression, community building, creativity, self-confidence, and self-discovery.
However, Black children’s play, playful expressions, and playfulness are too often restricted and threatened in an anti-Black world. Rice, Bryant, and Rolle are devastating examples of the reality that Black children are seen as disruptive, violent, and harmful to the greater society. That’s exactly why play continues to be a powerful way that Black children radically heal from traumas, resist violence, and experience joy and liberation.
Parents, families, educators, coaches, social workers, and advocates have a role in building a world where Black children are not policed and threatened out of their playfulness. From neighbors of Black children to store clerks at malls, we all have the opportunity and responsibility to develop, nourish, and protect liberatory environments for Black children to play.
So, as adults it is essential to center Black children and consider the questions: What is necessary in supporting and co-constructing liberatory spaces for Black children to play? And in those spaces, what would a Black child see, hear, and feel from the adults around them?
1. Black children would see, hear, and feel adults themselves engaging in joy, love, and healing through play
Adults, we need to play and be playful, too!
More than ever, we need to spread our wings, turn the music up loud, and curl up with belly laughs. Life is hard. Everyone and their momma can attest to this. Yes, in a nonstop culture it is hard to nourish our playful selves as we navigate a world turned upside down by the mass murdering of Black people, economic stress, and COVID-19.
However, we need to prioritize our joy over the stress of life. Play reminds us of the essence of play in our lives and, most importantly, in the lives of Black children. Play offers us a much-needed opportunity to see, feel, and hear the liberatory possibilities of healing, joy, love, and liberation. Silliness, playfulness, and joyfulness are essential to adulthood, too.
2. Black children would see, hear, and feel adults celebrating their beauty, brilliance, and boisterousness
Black children are miraculous. And it is truly miraculous when Black children find ways to play and be joyful amid an anti-Black world that threatens their existence. Black children are a reminder that roses can grow from concrete.
Adults, what would be possible in a world where we recognized a Black child’s laugh, exuberance, joy, as a miracle? To respond to a Black child’s joy as something worthy of awe and reverence, rather than something to be judged or threatened?
Amid a world of intergenerational violence perpetrated by us adults, Black children deserve to be celebrated for all that they are. They deserve to be called beautiful as they wobble down the street. They deserve to be called brilliant as they dig for worms. And Black children deserve for us to recognize their boisterousness as radical and simply liberatory.
Likewise, Black children deserve to see, hear, and feel adults who aren’t themselves afraid to show off their own beauty, brilliance, and boisterousness in the form of play. Adults, scream at the top of your lungs as you swing dramatically on the swings, act obnoxious as you zip down the slide, laugh while making a mess while cooking, and take up room with your joyful imagination and storytelling.
3. Black children would see, hear, and feel the protection of adults
Black children should know that adults around them have their backs. That if some danger is happening, adults are ready to step in because they honor those Black children as sacred beings.
This means not calling the cops on Black children. But it also means adults stepping in to say something if someone is being hurt or threatened. To stand up against other adults who are policing, adultifying, or criminalizing Black children. To take some risks.
“Instead of trying so hard to 'protect' society from Black children, we need to start protecting Black children from an anti-Black society”
Due to their fears, anxieties, and biases regarding Black children, adults across spaces have depended on measures of discipline and punishment to control the ways in which Black children expressed themselves. However, when we respond to Black children with psychological and physical measures of discipline and punishment, we slowly strip them of their fundamental right to a healthy, violence-free, and playful childhood.
Instead of trying so hard to “protect” society from Black children, we need to start protecting Black children from an anti-Black society.
4. Black children would see, hear, and feel adults giving them space to just be
Sometimes children need validation, celebration, or protection from danger. And sometimes, they need space to just be—to make mistakes, be goofy, be messy. Too often Black children are not afforded that space. Through the adultification and criminalization of Black children in educational and public spaces like schools, malls, street corners, and parks, adults fear Black children who are not even causing any harm.
We need adults to check themselves. We need adults to allow Black children to be children. Sometimes we don’t know what is best. So, sometimes when Black children are playing, just mind your own business—they are brilliant enough to figure things out for themselves.
5. Black children would see, hear, and feel LOVE
Maya Angelou said it best: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
At the end of the day, we will know we have done right by Black children when they feel loved in every space and in every interaction. This does not mean Black children aren’t held accountable when causing real harm—but we know that’s already happening. This means that in each interaction, Black children see, hear, and feel that adults are acting out of care for their whole selves. We can read all the books and think pieces we want, but until we begin to take risks (if not for ourselves) for Black children, change cannot happen.
Although there is much that can be done at the personal level, it is important that we begin to develop collective and community-based play spaces, playgrounds, and play environments that are anti-oppressive, non-violent, and free of law enforcement for Black children. Tamir Rice, Ma’Khia Bryant, and Kaia Rolle deserved to just be. All Black children deserve to just be.
Now, right now, imagine a Black child jumping off the side of a bench, gliding high in the air, and landing with a dramatic thud with their face stained with beauty, joy, and happiness. What is stopping us as adults from protecting Black children? What is stopping us as adults from allowing ourselves to have faces stained with beauty, joy, and happiness?
From their big snaggle-toothed smiles to their Hot Cheeto-stained laughs, Black children have utilized beauty, joy, happiness, and especially play to carve out radical spaces for themselves in environments where anti-Blackness has caused immense harm and violence. Play has enabled Black children to reclaim spaces that on a daily basis denounce their presence, to reclaim parks, playgrounds, shopping malls, and school buildings as their playgrounds.
Amid the recent murders of Black people, play has become even more important because as a society we have some much-needed healing to do. Adults’ play is an intergenerational activity that serves as a tool to resist and survive in a world that attempts to suppress our everyday beauty, joy, and happiness. Adults’ play is the path for adults to start unapologetically protecting, loving, nurturing, celebrating, and prioritizing the well-being of Black children.