When I was young, I used to play outside. Daily.
I’d go round up as many of the neighbourhood gang as possible; Bobby, Jamie, Katie, Suzie, Jordy and the twins, Tammy and Jenny (before their parents got divorced -the first divorce any of us had ever heard of- and they moved). I’d go knocking on doors with my polite, “Hello Mrs. Lowry, can Katie come out and play?” Kids were not typically on a first name basis with adults.
When us kids got together, we’d hang out on our crescent street and play hide and seek, kick the can, skipping, road hockey, kick ball, capture the flag or freeze tag. Sometime we’d find white garden rocks, use them to sketch white hopscotch boards on the street and then use the same rock as our playing piece. We’d pull out our skateboards and walk to the top of the street, arrange our bums and feet on the board and sail down in a sitting position to the bottom. Helmets were not even in the community consciousness.
We’d ride our bikes to the tuck shop and grab ourselves a Lola or a Macintosh’s toffee bar, the kind you had to crack against a hard surface, sometimes more than once, to break into pieces to share. After a rain, we’d sometimes save worms from the street and house them in worm farms on the lawn with fences made of sticks arranged in log cabin fashion. We’d take leaves and watch them race down the rain water rivers into the sewer grate.
Some days, we’d take our rackets and head to the always unlocked tennis club at the park, and whack balls against the practice wall. We’d carry on into the Don Valley ravine and search for snakes or look for fish in the fast flowing waters. We’d walk the trails and hop along rocks in the river to reach the other side, while trying to avoid getting a soaker.
In winter, we’d either lace up our skates at the local public school outdoor rink, or we’d gear up in our snowsuits and hit the park at the end of the block for some tobogganing. We’d usually return to my house where we had a “back hall” that we could use to throw off all of our wet stuff and make our way into the house for hot chocolate and some board games.
Never did we sit as a group of kids and watch TV or a movie in anyone’s house. The only exception was the Sunday nights that my mom would rent a movie projector and movies on the reel from the public library to show in our basement, and usually it was just family after Sunday dinner.
As neighbourhood kids, we got together and played. Constantly.
My kids are 13 and 11. They rarely initiate going out to play. When they were younger, I would take them to the park, and tobogganing and skating, but they never went door to door asking a regular group of friends to come out and play. At the same time, no one came knocking at our door. They’ve grown up with “play dates,” a term I’ve grown to loathe. These are planned get-togethers, usually in the confines of one of the play date participant’s homes from something like 2-4 on a Saturday. No spontaneous knocking on doors and no hour after hour of unscheduled and varied play.
Even though my kids are well at the ages where they can spend time with their friends without an adult in the near vicinity, they choose to hang out inside. When they do go out, it tends to revolve around visiting shops along the main street. The odd time they end up at the park or at the beach two blocks away from our house, but that’s the exception, not the rule. Mostly they are indoors unless I get them to go on a bike ride with me or scooter while I walk the dog. The urban outdoors just isn’t considered a great, limitless play space like it was in my day. This is in contrast to being up at my parent’s cottage where there is no TV, movies, internet or traffic and the kids play outside pretty much from sun up to sundown. It’s incredible.
A lot has changed since I was 10ish. I know it sounds like I’m one hundred. But in just 30 years a majority of city kids have gone from physically active and playful to sedentary and paranoid. It’s not just my neighbourhood. I don’t really see kids out playing much of anywhere. I admit, until recently I would have never let my kids run into a ravine with other kids. What if there’s a pervert down there? What if the fast-moving water pulls one of them away? It’s all worry and fear and I don’t even understand where it comes from considering my childhood, which I survived quite well. I’m conscious of it and I try to let it go. I do let my youngest ride the streetcar about a dozen stops to her school. My older one walks to her school. I do insist they walk to their friends houses, where they will likely sit around inside and yes, watch TV or a movie.
The kids don’t tend to hang around in packs and have many eyes to watch out for each other. Play dates and our recently developed adult need for constant parental supervision kind of put the kibosh on large group gatherings. It’s something I often feel quite sad about. Sometimes even guilty. It’s like we parents all agreed on some unconscious level to drag our kids way too young into our adult world of scheduling and worry. In a way, we have trained our kids to keep it small, monitored and safe.
No need to venture out with allowance and the gang to purchase and crack the party size Macintosh’s into a whole bunch of unique pieces for sharing out on the neighbourhood street. Two neat and individually wrapped Werther’s from the parents candy bowl should do it.