I just read an article in the New York Times about how children are losing their “culture.” Apparently things like Ring Around the Rosie and playing marbles and tag have been around for hundreds of years and generation after generation of children have adopted them and adapted them and learned to play by the rules, learned about friendship and competition, and much more, from these games and free-form activity in their playtime. That all makes sense to me, I grew up that way. But now that children spend 4 hours a day on a computer or in front of a TV or on a cell phone and recess at school is being shortened or eliminated, kids have lost hours of free time and that learning experience. Because of that, this article says, bullying is on the increase and children are losing important social skills.
You can read this all for yourself HERE if you like.
The article just made me keenly aware of the way that I was brought up. My friend Sandy was here over the weekend and we were talking about how, as kids, we were free to roam and explore and how if we had children today we wouldn’t be able to let them do that.
I always feel like I grew up in the country, but from age 0 to age 11 I was mostly in the city in Amarillo and then Colorado Springs. In Amarillo, even as a less-than-5-year-old, I had a lot of freedom to roam. I mostly remember two instances of “roaming.” Me and a group of the older kids chose to go to the end of the street for some reason. I think they all dashed off on their bicycles so I was peddling and moving as fast as I could on my tricycle. I was working my way across the street, paused to rest or see where they were, and looked over and here was a big carwaitingÂ - thankfully – Â until I got across the street. A man and a woman were in the front seat and they had a very kind, patient, loving look on their face (I really remember) as I put my feet to the pedals and got out of their way. It was rather alarming to me because I certainly knew the dangers of crossing the street and thought I had mastered them. I realized that I hadn’t seen them and was lucky they had stopped for me. As for how far we were from my house, I have no idea. Our street was pretty short to begin with and we might have been barely a house away, but it felt like I was on a high adventure.
I remember being at a neighbor’s across the street one time, too. Neighbors that weren’t a family friend like the Waldens and Bachmans and others around us. I was there with a friend and I was very aware that I wasn’t supposed to be there and was keeping low so if Mother looked out she wouldn’t see me through the window and know where I was. Now I think about how I could have ended up in a basement, kidnapped and gagged. At the time, it was alarming, because I knew I might be in trouble from HER, but not alarming considering all the other dangers I put myself in.
But mostly in Amarillo, my world was our backyard and it was an ideal word for exploration. We really did learn all the rules about fairness and play. Mother remembers having the windows open and hearing all the neighborhood kids creating all the rules for a game. She says we would go on and on and on about the rules and sometimes never even get to the game itself… but that’s an important part of the childhood. Not expecting an adult to set the rules and the standards at a soccer field or T-ball game, but learning to work as a team to make them for yourself. Of course, I was the youngest so I don’t think I ever got to make a rule and that’s part of who I am today, too!
Our backyard had many wonderful things to explore with Mackie, Kevin, Paul, Brian, and other kids that may have come and gone quickly. We had a doghouse that was fun to crawl in (I think several of us could fit, unless Maizie decided she wanted to be in there, too, she was bigger than any of us). It was also fun to sit on top of and we could sit 3 across on its roof. It felt like being WAY up high to sit on that roof (I know that it was about waist high to adults). The best time of year to sit on the roof was when the cherries were on the cherry tree and we could pluck a cherry and put that hot, slick orb in our mouths and roll it around and appreciate the texture and the other facets of its beauty beyond taste before letting that SOUR juice break through and then spit the pits out and see how far they could go.
The cherry tree itself was fun to explore year round. It had a short limb stump down toward that bottom that was the first step to climbing that tree. I’m sure “climbing” that tree never took us more than 2 feet from the ground, but it felt like we were great explorers and in grave danger.
Out by the fence, Mom had iris. We took great delight in taking iris leaves and “peeling” them or tearing them in strips and pretending they were bananas. No one ever made us stop that. The fence itself was a delight on trash day! We would run and climb the fence and wait for the big trash truck and the burly men to stop and hoist our big 50-gallon-drum trash cans into the truck. They were always friendly and greeted us and we felt adventurous to have talked to these strangers!
One of my very fondest memories of those years comes back to me every spring when I see tulips coming up in my garden (which so rarely bloom here in Austin because of the mild winter) or blooming in the landscaped areas of businesses. Amarillo has a great climate for tulips and we had tulips planted in the backyard. My “job” (I felt) in the spring was to get up and go outside and count the tulips that were blooming and come back and report that to mother before I began playing in earnest. I don’t know if she remembers that at all (do you Mom?), but it is vivid to me, seeing those brilliant red tulips with the black stamens. I was a very good counter, even though I wasn’t in school yet, and was proud that I could complete this job every morning.
The backyard was the home of many playhouses and many forts and some were just delineated by a row of sticks laid out on the ground to signify a wall. Home base for tag was usually the back steps of the porch. Maybe the best feature of the backyard was the sandbox. We had a great sandbox. I vaguely remember Daddy and someone – probably Uncle Homer or Uncle Jim? – building it with planks and posts. These days you can buy “play sand” at the Home Depot and I’m sure people have to do that for their little pre-made plastic sandboxes for their children because how else would you get sand? In MY day, we had sand. Real sand. Daddy was a surveyor and lots of his work took him out by the Canadian River north of Amarillo. When he would be up in that area he would fill a big burlap sack with sand straight from the river bank/bottom and bring it home. It is a VERY pleasant memory to remember him coming home on a summer evening not too long before baths and bedtime and dumping a big sack or two of sand into our sandbox and filling it up. We had to play fast and hard right then because it was only damp for a short while. We would mold cups of “cake” and make castles and towns and create whole fantasy worlds before we had to come in and take a bath and go to bed. The next day the sun would come up and the sand would be dry and never have the same river qualities again, even if we tried to wet it down. And the sand would somehow go away, I remember and the sandbox would lose its appeal as the sand became sparser and hotter and drier and you found yourself just sitting in a square box on bare ground with the barest covering of sand. But you never knew if that might be the day Daddy would come home with a sack or two of river sand and totally rock your world!
Whenever I talk about my life, Mark talks about my “idyllic childhood.” When he says that, we are usually talking about the years in the country with the haystacks and rolling a Â hoop down the dirt road and chasing cats and puppies and general farm life. But those early years in Amarillo did a lot more of what the article talks about, I think. There were neighborhood children to play with and neighborhood mothers to keep an eye on us all. We had our safe little 1960s world and I wish kids today could have just a taste of it.