IT WAS ABOUT THIS TIME OF YEAR that many of my junior high school classmates started talking about summer camp.
“Summer camp?” I thought. “Ha! That means I get to go outside to do chores.”
And that didn’t mean a hiatus from cleaning my dad’s bathroom, emptying wastebaskets, or carrying the laundry downstairs. It meant doing all of that and taking the garbage out to the street, picking weeds, and mowing the lawn.
See, I was raised by parents who came of age during the depression, so everyone was expected to do their share. Without moaning. No moaning. And there was no columnar list on the refrigerator showing which kid did what. No smiley faces added if you completed the chore.
Just do it.
Truth be told, mowing the lawn wasn’t all that much of a chore. It was a release of my inner anality. You want straight lines? I’ll give you straight lines. Honestly, I missed my calling. I should have skipped college and worked my way up to become head of the Chicago Cubs grounds-keeping crew. Plus, mowing the lawn usually ended with me and my dad sitting on the front steps sharing a Ballentine’s Ale. Summer heat, sweat, my dad, and a few sips of his beer: emotionally and physically stratospheric.
Summer chores completed, there was also time for play.
Building tree forts. My pals and I thought it was our duty to, how shall I put this, beautify our neighborhood by cleaning up construction sites of scrap lumber and nails carelessly strewn about.
Capturing bugs. Studying bugs. Torturing bugs. (Hey, we were boys, alright?)
Exploring a nearby swamp for turtles and frogs. Bringing home said turtles and frogs to live in my mom’s laundry sink. Standing with head bowed in front of my mom. Returning said turtles and frogs to the swamp.
Camping out in the backyard. Talking late in the night about cars, Mad magazine, the latest Mercury or Gemini space mission, girls, and the “good parts” in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels – our animated faces lit by the glow of our Coleman lantern; our conversations punctuated by too many Three Musketeers, Snicker Bars, PayDays, Mounds, and my favorite – still to this day – Milk Duds. Whoever came up with that blend of milk chocolate and caramel should be sainted.
Riding our bikes to the A&W Root Beer stand for a Black Cow. And then riding all the way home not using our handlebars – sipping and spooning out ice cream as we rode. Who were the cool kids now?
Building a baseball diamond, and playing out our version of the most recent World Series. Endlessly. Arguing whether the pitch was a “Strike!” or “Ball!” and whether Jimmy Concannon was “Safe!” or “Out!” Endlessly.
Play was fun.
What we didn’t know was that play was also healthy.
I don’t have kids, and I no longer teach, but I read a lot that kids growing up today are more withdrawn, anxious, and aggressive than ever before. Why? We might want to check on how much they engage in play. As educator Hannah Beach recently remarked on my podcast,
“The loss of free play is hugely detrimental to the healthy emotional development of kids. Kids need play in order to make sense of the world. This is where they digest their anxiety, their aggression, and their frustration.
Children have replaced play with electronic entertainment, and they are not the same thing. Entertainment is something that comes into us. Whereas play is something that comes out of us. We have kids who are breathing entertainment in and in and in and they are emotionally full. They are arriving in our classrooms with no place to digest their alarm, their frustration, and they’re filled with aggression and anxiety”
I’m not a parent, but I am a lifelong educator, so what’s happening to kids today concerns me. I want today’s kids to love their childhood and teenage years. After all, they’re going to be adults tomorrow. If I were a parent, I would probably be inclined to say what my mom said if she found us on that rare occasion of watching what she felt was too much TV.
Go outside and play.
My mom is no longer around for me to argue the defense’s case for turtles and frogs, but somehow, she instinctively knew that getting outside – armed only with what our imaginations and hands could create – was good for us.
You’re right: COVID-19 currently makes this impossible for most kids. But if the scientists are right, one day soon, bugs, baseball, and building tree forts will all be fair game.