Chicken poop and pirates. That’s what this old barn was full of. The chicken poop was real; the pirates were pure imagination as were endless games my brothers, sister, and I created in our neighbor’s barn. We played Hide ‘n’ Seek (our own “bad guys” version) behind towers of forgotten hay bales. We fought for territory on the top of those straw towers in ferocious battles of King of the Mountain. We picked through dusty buckets of doorknobs, fishing gear, and horse tack, wondering if we might discover a special use for all this neglected, awesome stuff. Most awesome of all, was the day we found a litter of kittens. Wild and cute as could be, they were the one thing my neighbor showed no hesitation in giving us, something my mom and dad never quite forgave him for.
This childhood “playground” came to mind during a recent week when I saw three different moms cajoled by their offspring (one of them a toddler) into giving up their cell phones so that the kids could keep themselves entertained. “I’m bored,” they all whined. Not every of these three mom’s gave in, nor is it necessarily bad to let kids play video games, but the situations made me wonder – what playgrounds and imaginative games fill a child’s life today?
The barn was only one place of wonder in my childhood. The fence in our backyard transformed into a sprawling highway; the wood planks on the top were just the right width for our Hot Wheels. The garden, in early spring, looked like a cemetery about to happen from all the crater sized holes we dug. My big brother expedited for worms, while the rest of us tried to trick one another with booby traps. Only my mother ever managed to actually fall into one of them. (Boy was she mad!)
We were CIA spies. From the corner of our yard, we listened in on as one set of neighbors robustly argued about things that didn’t make sense to us. From my bedroom, we watched our other neighbor’s TV through the window, making up our own dialogue for the pictures we saw on the screen. They must have caught on though, because every Sunday night, just when Bonanza was getting started, the blind soundly closed. Bummer!
We rode bikes and played in the park. One of my grandmother’s friends let my sister and me build a fort on the lot across from her house. It was so cool, because a trickle of a creek ran next to it, and we could spy on my grandma from there. We picked carrots from the garden, washed them with the garden hose and devoured them as if candy. In the winter, we rallied the neighborhood and threw snowballs at each other from the tops of forts left behind by snowplows.
Only a snippet of my childhood games, they might seem an unfair comparison of the playtime of children today. After all, I grew up in a small town and in a time believed now to be safer than today. (Although, in the days of Ted Bundy and beginning of the drug dealing era, no one was really safe.) Roaming on bikes or playing in a big barn isn’t an option for many kids today, especially in the cities, but this still doesn’t mean video games and TV should be the only options.
And I’m sure they are not. Hopefully, every kid finds their home, whether an apartment or a 3,000 foot spread, a place full of wonder. I think of my friend E. She and her husband are raising three children in the confines of a 3 bedroom condo. They are committed to staying within their budget. How I admire that commitment and how marvelous to watch how invested they are in their children. Their tiny home is a wonderland of crayons, legos, Star Wars toys, dolls, sewing projects, laughter and closeness. Now, that’s the stuff that childhood and well-adjusted adults are made of.
I imagine the single whiff of a crayon or play dough will send E.’s kids back to warm memories. It’s my hope that my own kids will think past episodes of Barney and Full House to times of dress up and building castles out of paper bags. Or to times of playing restaurant and charging us to eat the meal that I had prepared. Or to the several weeks in which a giant cardboard box served as a make believe car. Or to a house full of kittens, gold fish, and guinea pigs. Probably, way too much TV time was in the mix as well, but as my girls are now adults, and I watch them tackle craft projects and experiment with cooking and just plain enjoy life and people, I’m thinking that those hours of play are paying off.
In stark contrast to these kinds of childhood memories, I think of Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Pedestrian”. You can google and find it on line. It’s eerie to me that the a story penned in 1951, so nearly describes the world we engage in, in 2013. I wonder if you are as chilled as I am to read of Bradbury’s world in which all the people (except one deviant) are lulled to passivity by their television screens? Maybe we think we keep our kids safe and happy by parking them in front of a TV or computer screen, but I think that the more we engage merely with electronic gadgets, the less compassionate and vested we are in real life and real people. Could this be getting close to the root cause of many of our current social ills?
What are your thoughts? And by all means, share your favorite childhood past-times or those of your kids. Most of all … play on!