Overall, and especially with unschooling this week, I let them be. They come back, eventually, sweaty and muddy. The weather is warm enough so only clothes need to be shed, not the winter jackets. The huge clunks of mud are scraped off on the ridges of front steps, but that red clay still makes its way into the coat closet, to dry and fall off and disintegrate into dust, covering the knees of baby's pajamas. He pulls up by the front screen door now, asking them to take him along.
I do not supervise the digging and the backyard exploring. Whichever conflicts they have, they work out on their own. Occasionally someone might come in crying, but it is usually more fun to be out there.
I do not always view all this digging favorably, especially when I am the one stuck cleaning up the mud or washing yet another load of laundry. Sometimes I wish they did something more productive and useful. Sometimes I wish they did something more academic. Sometimes I wish they were in school, clean and neat.
And wishing to be out there in the back, digging in a pit of mud, covering it with pine branches and old shower curtain; crafting a desk and decks and other spaces discrete only in the rules of their game.
Play is so fundamental to humans. Freedom to explore and make mistakes and try things out without any grown-up oversight: why should this be saved up for college instead of being an essence of childhood?
One of things I bemoan is living in a place without sidewalks, without a library or a park within walking distance, on a block without other kids my kids' age. I wish they had a gang, a group. I wish that I could send them to a corner store with a ten dollar bill to buy milk. I wish there was somewhere for them to walk to on their own. I wish that it would be viewed as normal. Moreover, I think that my kids do not wish those things because they expect to be driven to places and rely on grown-ups to get them there. I saw a statistic that fewer teens are getting their permits and licenses, presumably because they see no need in having the independence of a car. That scares me.
But back to play. I even have a nice article backing me up that unsupervised play today is in danger of disappearing. Caution: it might cause severe nostalgia for your own wild childhood, because, chances are, whichever childhood you had, it was more adventurous than whatever your kids are getting.