“Go out and play!” I grew up on that command. Out I went and glad of it because it was while I was “out there” that I not only developed physical, mental and social skills but began to exercise my creative juices. Like what? …like deciding that the winner of an argument was the person who could stand on his/her hands the longest (which was me, by the way). Unsupervised play also teaches how to compromise, to lead and to follow, how to win with humility and lose with a smile; that is, if you want to have friends. And on rainy or blustery winter days when we had to play indoors, our imaginations took over, and we made up stories and produced plays based on ideas extrapolated from the “stuff” in our basements.
Being “out there” is also responsible for many wonderful childhood memories, such as when my then best friend Margaret and I decided to break into a mysterious and abandoned mansion a few miles from our homes. We biked there one summer day, hid our bikes under a bush, and circled the mansion, checking all the doors and windows for a point of entry. A locked screen door leading onto a small porch looked like a possibility. We scratched a hole in the screen and unhooked the latch. Standing on a milk box (yes, milk was delivered back then), we were able to reach a small window, which was unlocked. We climbed through, descended on pantry shelves and entered the kitchen. After touring the first floor, which was the size of a hotel, we climbed to the second floor, quickly took stock of the eight bedrooms, which were all littered with papers, bottles, and clothing.
As avid readers of the only female hero in our lives, Nancy Drew (of mystery novel fame), we were accustomed to a heart-stopper-a-page; therefore, we quickly found the second floor boring and decided to descend to the basement, the floor of all evil. There was no electricity in the house, but we found a candle and matches in the kitchen, and proceeded to the basement. Margaret, holding the candle in a shaking hand, went first. A moment after we hit bottom, she let out a blood-curdling scream, ran past me, up the stairs and into the kitchen. She scrambled up the pantry shelves, exited through the window, and ran. I was right behind her.
“What happened?” I asked, when we reached our bikes.
“I hit something with my foot. I bent down to see what it was, and touched a hand. There’s a dead body in the basement.”
“You’re making that up!” I accused.
“Look! Up there!”
I looked. A man was standing at a second floor window, staring out at us. We did not hesitate. We got on our bikes and raced home.
Yup, those were the good old days, when children were out on the streets, playing games, climbing trees, jumping rope, developing strengths, testing their limits, learning to improvise, discovering what they are capable of and what they should leave to the pages of Nancy Drew mystery novels. But now when you drive or walk through these
same residential areas
you rarely if ever see a child … though you will see a number of adults walking
their dogs; after all, everyone knows that dogs need exercise and happy and
healthy chickens should be free range.
Childless streets, sidewalks, and yards are not limited to a few neighborhoods. My friend Ralph, who has been flying a hot air balloon for forty years, says that he has floated over our community thousands of times – at 4 MPH and from a height of 400 to 500 feet, which provides “a unique perspective of life below.” According to Ralph, it can be a beautiful summer evening, but there’s not a child in sight -- not unless he’s part of an organized little league game. “It wasn’t always like that. Up until fifteen years ago, children were outside, playing. Not anymore.”
So… where are they, the children? They’re inside their homes, their playground a digital one, made up of videos, computer games, friending and following. And on those rare occasions when they do venture outside, ostensibly to meet up with other children, their play is parallel, not interactive. I call it PAT, playing alone together.
` Despite the fact that researchers have proven that unstructured play and social interaction are an important part of a child’s overall development, public schools have reduced the number of gym classes and recess has almost disappeared. Where it is available, it’s frequently denied students as a punishment for misbehaving.
If you ask parents why their children aren’t outside playing, they’ll most likely tell you that they’re afraid they’ll be kidnapped. In actuality, kidnappings are very rare, and when they do happen, it is usually an angry spouse who is responsible…still, it is understandable that even a “few and far between” highly-publicized kidnappings is enough to put fear into the hearts of any parent…
…but there is a way to both protect the children -- without penning them up inside a safe house and sedating them with a mountain of electronics -- and get them outside: establish neighborhood “Watch” groups. Many neighborhoods already have them, though originally created to “watch over” homes and property. It's time to add children to the "watch" by having parents (or their designated substitutes) monitor them, unobtrusively.
So let's hear it again for "Go out and play!' Otherwise, future generations of children will be deprived of the kinds of experiences that promote cognitive, physical, mental, and social development, and the numbers of obese children and diabetics will continue to grow.
Whiningly yours, Carol