“ Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing!”
This title introduces readers to Robert P. Smith’s unconventional memoir of his boyhood. He wrote of the experiences, games, superstitions and beliefs of a typical boyhood in the first half of the 20th century. A boy– after lying on his back in the grass for hours contemplating the sky — would return home and answer his mother’s questions. He went “Out”. Then, “What did you do?” His answer made sense to him. “Nothing.”
As a father, Smith was concerned with what he saw as a lack of creativity in the lives of his own children. He was disturbed by the increasing trend of parents formalizing the play time of their children. He would be in a state of shock today when parents arrange ‘play dates’ for their children from the ages of two and three up to their teens. The children are often driven to each other’s homes for supervised play while their parents — usually mothers–socialize for an hour or more. Sometimes, the children are deposited for the arranged hours and picked up later. It’s a given that the activity will be reciprocal.
The entire subject of playtime for children received attention with the publication of “The Dangerous Book for Boys” that zoomed to number two on Amazon sales within days of publication in 2007. The book by Conn and Hal Iggulden celebrated the games and activities of boyhood that are no longer played. Of course, many of them were played by girls as well as boys. Within the year, “The Daring Book for Girls” by Andrea Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz followed from the same publisher. Both books are available in paperback on Amazon.com with five star ratings and comments.
Have you seen any boys playing marbles lately? Are there hopscotch squares drawn in chalk on the sidewalk in your neighborhood? Any girls jumping rope? Double Dutch? Are there any kids tearing around an empty lot or backyard playing tag? Is there a boy or a girl climbing a tree nearby? Maybe the basic question should be — Have you seen any children playing outside?
There is an emphasis on safety for children that has developed during the past decades. Children ride bicycles wearing helmets. And unless the backyard is secure, many parents will no longer allow their children to just “go out and play”. The years of my childhood, when my sister and I joined the other kids on the block to start a game of softball or kick ball in the empty lot, are long past. There were races, scavenger hunts and informal volley ball games with a makeshift net. It seems we were always outdoors and on the move. We climbed the big pear tree in our back yard; my sister always reached a higher branch. It was fun to sit on a sturdy branch, pick a pear and eat it. On rainy days, we played indoor games — jacks and pick-up sticks on the smooth parquet floor, hide and seek and endless marathon Monopoly games.
Conn Iggulden said that he received e-mails from parents who felt that keeping kids locked in the house in Play Stations wasn’t actually good for them . He also heard skeptical reactions from parents to the safety culture that prevented many activities that had been important to their own growth and confidence. Joan Almon, coordinator of a play advocacy group in College Park, Maryland says, “These kind of games, including tag, ‘You’re it!’ have practically died out. We should be paying more attention to these classic children’s games which are almost lost now.”
Today, children may spend most of their play hours inside the house in front of their computer linked to the Internet, playing video games. In many a home, there is also a DVD player, an iPod and iPad, as well as such 21st century attractions as Game Boy, Xbox and Game Cube. There’s no question that kids from the earliest ages of two and three are engrossed. Surveys clock the hours spent in rapt attention to the iPad, computer or television screen. The question is whether this type of free play time is beneficial to overall intellectual, emotional and physical growth. And does it stimulate creativity? Finally, a closely related concern that is emerging — whether the lack of physical activity has led to the rise of childhood obesity.
A national study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that overweight children, ages 6 to 11, increased to 18 percent in 2004 from 4 percent in 1974. There has been a two pronged approach to the problem with equal emphasis on proper nutrition and physical exercise. Many schools across the country have changed their cafeteria menus to cut back on fats, and have forbidden the sale of candy and sugar-heavy sodas. Of course, schools can do their part, but parents have far greater influence with control of foods available at home, and the play time activities of their children. Parents can play a major role in encouraging their children to take part in team sports sponsored by their schools and the community. Cross-country running, track, baseball, softball, soccer, basketball and lacrosse are offered by many middle and high schools.
When Robert Smith wrote his seminal book, he had a provocative view of the relationship between parents and children. Most of his observations are as fresh today as they were then. “When we were kids, we had the sense to keep things to ourselves. We didn’t go around asking grownups about them. They obviously didn’t know… I think we were right about grownups being the natural enemies of kids because we knew that what they wanted us to do was to be like them. And that was for the birds. “Pop, look at this. It’s a pollywog — look at it.” “Um,” said your father after a quick glance. Another kid peered at it with interest and immediately asked, “Jeez, where’d you get it? Are there any more? What’ll you take for it?”
Imagination. Creativity. Independent thought. A young child playing with wooden blocks of different sizes, shapes and colors creates a marvelous configuration — stacking, leaning, arranging, extending. Much concentration of thought, time and effort is involved. Thoroughly engrossed. Then an adult approaches, looks down and asks, “What is it? A house? A bridge? A train? Does it have to match something already in existence! Can’t it be his or her unique creation of form and space — and mind? Yes, that’s what it is. That’s what childhood play should be about — individual creativity and growth.