NEWBURYPORT — With the youngest children in Generation Z finding themselves consumed with the latest gaming and technology, members of the Webber family say their children still want to kick a ball outside and use their imagination to create their own free time.

Newburyport Youth Services is working on developing the “Youth Thrive” initiative to support freedom of play and age appropriate independence, according to Director Andrea Egmont, who stressed the importance of empowering young children.

Part of the process in developing the concept is taking a look at how play has changed over the decades.

While today’s children see more pressure on their social life, academic performance and more scheduling of their free time, older generations recall more imaginative exploration. 

John Leary, 71, his daughter Emily Webber, 37, her husband, John Webber, 37, and their two children, Jackson, 8, and Colleen, 5, compared how they spent their play time growing up.

Leary, who grew up in what would have been considered the “poorer” section of Newburyport at the time, noted he was raised with more freedom to explore with his neighborhood friends and less adult supervision.

Whether it was playing pickup sports games, hide-and-seek, kickball, kick the can, or cowboys and Indians, Leary said he and his friends were constantly outdoors.

“A lot of the time, there was exploring in the woods around us where Twomey, LeBlanc & Conte Funeral Home is,” Leary said. “There was a little pond out there and we would take a raft. Our parents, they didn’t know, but we were pretty free and you’d go back for lunch and the big thing is when the streetlights came on, you had to come home.”

While Leary was able to explore the woodland and downtown areas of the city, Emily said she would walk to school and hang out at the corner store, but she would often play in her backyard. Her husband, John, said his childhood was similar to the freedom that Leary experienced when it came to playing pickup sports games with friends.

“It was … very similar to John (Leary) in terms of we had a large contingent of kids within walking distance,” John Webber said. “Not every neighborhood had that. A lot of my friends in the South End said they had two or three friends that lived within a few blocks.”

While growing up around the corner from Atkinson Common, John Webber said if he was bored in the summer, he would go to the common to look for other kids to play with. The biggest difference he sees is that there were no boundaries.

“We went and hopped neighbors’ fences and went through their yards in and out,” he said. “They would poke their head out and realize it was just kids and wave and we were no older than (Jackson) was. Sometimes, it was two, three, sometimes four blocks away from my house. It was really similar in that regard even though it was a different time.”

Today, Emily said it’s difficult for her son to go outside and find kids to play with at times, while Leary said he could go out into his neighborhood and be with six to eight kids at a time. In addition, John Webber said he was lucky enough to grow up in a neighborhood where you could find a dozen kids to play with at a time, every day.

“If we said, ‘Go out and play,’ they wouldn’t last very long because there isn’t anyone else they could find to play with,” Emily admitted. “There are some kids that live up the street that will circle the block, but I think it’s because (kids) are out a lot but we just don’t see them at the same time. We have a lot of stuff they’re organized in, those other families have stuff, so it’s not like when you go out every day after school and everyone’s there. People have their own schedules.”

Jackson said he’s involved with sports and will play video games at his friends’ houses, however, the family doesn’t have a gaming console at their house.

For fun, Jackson likes to play soccer, kick a ball in his backyard, play on his swing set, build forts inside, and read books. Emily said her two kids are always wanting to go outside and play and will only default to video or indoor games as a last resort.

“(Jackson) is busier in terms of the sports that he does, but he’s actually been kind of lucky he hadn’t had a ton of homework,” Emily said. “He’s in second-grade … it had gone from lower grades getting a lot of homework and, all of a sudden, people started not giving as much homework, which is nice, because when he’s done with school, he’s done.” 

Staff writer Amanda Getchell covers Newburyport and Seabrook. Follow her on Twitter @ajgetch.


Newburyport Youth Services is launching the “Youth Thrive” initiative, a multiyear plan to “help the community as a whole value … young people and see them as resource in our community”; engage and empower young people “to increase independence and coping skills to take into adulthood”; support young people and their families “to make sure they are able to live their best lives”; and to inspire young people “to find their spark and ignite their own fire.”

As part of this initiative, NYS and community partners will be encouraging parents to create more opportunities for free play for their children. Free play is unstructured time without adult involvement. For more information, contact Newburyport Youth Services online at or follow NYS on Facebook.

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