Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

The material I post on this blog represents my views and mine alone. The material you post on this blog represents your views and yours alone.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

An Occupation Once Called "just running around”

[gary daily col. 30 August 8, 2002]

Were we closer to the ground as children or is the grass emptier now? -Alan Bennett

Children do not give up their innate imagination, curiosity, dreaminess easily. You have to love them to get them to do that. -R. D. Laing

With summer coming to an end and the “Back to School” sales hoopla taking over the malls and mega-stores, kids are starting to feel the hot breath of formal education on the backs of their necks. And some of these kids are feeling and thinking, what’s the difference--schools are about adults and summers are about adults. Kids like these are not just showing signs of creeping cynicism, they’re reporting on the reality of their lives.

This thought was reinforced again while I was re-reading two favorite books, Harper Lee’s 1960 classic, To Kill A Mockingbird and Robert Paul Smith’s less well known, Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing. Lee’s novel, serious and significant, is set in the southern Alabama town of Maycomb in the early 1930s; Smith tells funny, wildly exaggerated stories of his urban youth from the perspective of fifties suburbia. The coming-of-age theme is an important part of the Lee novel. Smith’s stories carry a not very subtle subtext of worry about how children are growing up in 1958, the year his book was published.

“Scout” is Lee’s child heroine. Her nickname says it all. She’s the curious, brave, tough, try-anything younger sister of Jem and the friend of a regular summer visitor to Maycomb, Dill. In brief, here’s a hint of their summer: “Routine contentment was: improving our treehouse that rested between giant chinaberry trees in the back yard, fussing, running through our list of dramas based on the works of Oliver Optic, Victor Appleton, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. . . . But by the end of August our repertoire was vapid from countless reproductions, and it was then that Dill gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.”

No need to fill in any blanks. These kids amused themselves with kid games thought up by kids and carried out by kids. And that “fussing” hints at times filled with unsupervised discovery. As Lee amusingly and ominously puts it, when they grew tired of this they went looking for something more exciting to do.

Today the Apprehensive Adult Authority of the Universe would be quick to say Scout and company went “looking for trouble.” Motivated by a trust shattering mix of guilt and fear, a duly constituted Apprehensive Adult Authority Action Committee would create still another “summer program” or sports league or play circle. Firm in the knowledge that the devil has plans of chaos for youth with idle hands and inquisitive minds, these programs are designed to keep chaos at bay by providing the glue of schedules and the protection of supervision.

This is all an unfair caricature. But it’s a picture that does capture some salient truths. When Smith wrote his paean to unfettered youth in search of fun and “trouble” back in the good old days of the 1950s, the slope toward Palm Pilot child rearing practices was just showing up on the cultural screen of American life.

We should never take Smith at his word. But even discounting his tales by 90% for hyperbolic humor, he still leaves us with the impression that his childhood years were spent profitably pursuing activities few parents today can imagine, let alone tolerate. Some of these were building forts in vacant lots with scavenged and “loaned” building materials, engaging in a wide range of games that required no equipment and no insurance releases, cutting worms in half, dropping things down storm drains, spitting, playing mumbly-peg with knives bristling with many blades, and enjoying a game of baseball played with less than nine players on a side, no uniforms, and with a ball wrapped in friction tape. Smith candidly reveals, however, that time was mostly spent “pursuing the occupation called ‘just running around.’”

Mythic Golden Ages abound in history and especially in memories of our youth. All are true in a fashion; all are lies at the edges or the core. They are built through a selection process that delivers up pleasure rather than pain. We grudgingly grant this in recognition that we can’t turn the clock back to those innocent, interesting times that never really existed.

But still, we feel pangs of memory or longing when we read about the no-strings-attached seasons of play and discovery enjoyed by Lee’s “Scout” and Smith’s childhood self. Our kitchen calendars can underline this feeling. Have the days and weeks on it been transformed into a personal corporate-style flow chart on speed - filled beyond the margins with initials, times, and cell phone numbers? And what answer do we get from our children or grandchildren when we ask, “What have you been up to?” Do they say “fussing” with the assurance of that always curious keg of energy, “Scout”? Is their response edgy with self-reliance as Smith’s “just running around”? Or do they wearily point up to the calendar on the wall?


Blogger gary daily said...

Thought this article should be added.

Free Unstructured Play Is Essential For Children
09 Oct 2006

In order to develop socially, emotionally and cognitively, children need plenty of free, unstructured play - in other words, lots of old-fashioned free playtime, says a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics, called "The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds."

The American Academy of Pediatrics believes pediatricians should check children's levels of stress, to make sure they are not being overloaded with activities and tasks that are designed to do them good, but could end up having the opposite effect.

Too many children in the USA have to give up free play time because their parents, in a bid to help them do well, send them to classes and encourage them to take part in "development activities". Several pediatricians, says the report, are finding that some children are becoming stressed - they are not getting enough 'downtime'.

The report says that not only does unstructured play give children time to adjust to a new school setting, but it also allows them to use their creativity, find out what they really like, acquire and practise their social skills, and solve problems. Children who can take part in unstructured free play tend to become more resilient.

The report urges parents to be guided by what their child is like, rather than how well other kids down the road are doing.

The report lists many factors which could contribute towards childhood stress:

-- changes in family structure
-- competitive college admissions process
-- federal education policies
-- fear a child may fall behind academically
-- less physical activity
-- a hurried lifestyle

If a child has to live a hurried lifestyle, while at the same time he/she has less free time, he/she can become more stressed and anxious. The report states that some children could even become depressed. Although excelling academically has its benefits, the reports stresses that parental love, role modeling and guidance are what really matter for success in life.

The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds (PDF)

American Academy of Pediatrics

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12:21 AM  

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