Once upon a time, when I was a child, kids did their own thing during playtime.
By and large, parents figured that was the kids’ domain. Moms and dads opened the doors and told us to go and play —and we did.
There were some basic rules: “Look twice before you cross the street,” “don’t talk to strangers,” and “come home when it gets dark.” Also, in my case, “Don’t eat food that doesn’t look kosher — no treif, and no gelatin.” I had no idea what that meant, and who knows what I ate while running around with my friends from my block?
What I do remember is the happy and creative fun we had long ago.
The implicit parental message was this — we love you, but use your own imagination to create games and activities, and don’t forget to make friends with the other nice children on the block. They may not all be just like you, but it doesn’t matter. See you later. Come home if you need a snack, band-aids, or some mercurochrome for bruises. Have fun!
Yes, there were quiet times, and maybe, sometimes we were bored. But we didn’t realize it. We never even used that b word. (Bored, of course.) We never said it. We just worked harder at creating playtime activities.
My earliest playtime memory was on Canterbury Street in Hartford, Connecticut, the city where I was born. Many of us didn’t go to summer camp, so Canterbury Street was our playground during the hot summer months. On the narrow tree-lined sidewalks, driveways, and backyards, we hopscotched, jumped rope, climbed monkey bars, chased each other in tag games, and nearly broke our necks bouncing up and down on rickety seesaws. (I’m glad I don’t see those anymore.)
But the real excitement happened later in the afternoon, when the Good Humor truck rolled down the block. We stood in line waiting as Mr. Good Humor, in his white shirt and pants, always clean as a whistle, stuck his hand into the truck and gave us our treats.
My best friend, Mary Beth Kelly, and I always shared a cherry double popsicle, breaking it in half and then licking up the juice until our lips and tongues turned red. Mary Beth and I came from different backgrounds — she was from an Irish Catholic family, while I was brought up in an Orthodox Jewish home.
I was fascinated by Mary’s Christmas tree, which shimmered with sparkling lights. Mary had a big family, and they all got dressed up to go to church on Sundays. She wore her poofiest dress, and her entire family walked up the block to church at the top of Canterbury Street. On Shabbat, I also wore my poofiest dress — with a crinoline underneath to make it extra poofy — and we walked down the block to the Young Israel Synagogue at the bottom of the street.
After services, we went back to playing together, sometimes with the gang, but often just the two of us.
Life and culture have changed dramatically since then. Now young children can attend a diverse array of summer camps, and during the year, their schedules are chock full of structure and extracurricular activities.
Much of the change is positive, although I wonder — when is it too much of a good thing?
That question was examined in a recent article in the New York Times, called “Let Children Get Bored, It’s Good for Them,” by Catherine Pearson.
Ms. Pearson wrote about the long stretches of time during summer vacation when her parents didn’t schedule much of anything and “they didn’t give a hoot about whether I felt sufficiently engaged or amused.” She also paraphrases Dr. Erin Westgate, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Florida, as saying that “there is a kind of cultural stigma attached to boredom, particularly in the United States.”
Ms. Pearson quoted Dr. Westgate as saying: “Boredom is normal, natural and healthy”; she “believes that in moderate doses, boredom can offer a valuable learning opportunity, spurring creativity and problem solving and motivating children to seek out activities that feel meaningful to them.”
Shera Dubitsky of Teaneck, a therapeutic coach, shared her thoughts on this topic with her trademark wit and wisdom.
“Know your kid,” she said. “Parents are the experts on their children’s needs, and it’s important to know how much structure they each require.”
She also reminisced about her own childhood memories. “On Sundays, we played unsupervised outside all day, bike riding, playing ball, and kid-inspired scavenger hunts,” she said. “By the time I was 7 years old, I believed I was a skilled surgeon because we played the game Operation so many times.
“At that time, we had so much imaginative playtime, we could be whoever we wanted to be as long as we were at the dinner table at 5.”
Shera and I laughed at all the funny memories and shtick we used to do as kids.
Looking back, isn’t hindsight often 20/20? Those playtime memories still are precious, although my childhood wasn’t at all picture perfect — it was often very complicated. But playtime was so formative in the way I came to view life, because I learned a measure of independence at an early age.
Those were lessons on how to handle quiet times, how to play with children unlike myself, and to appreciate differences in lifestyles and religion. Ultimately, I learned how to fill the empty spaces and voids that inevitably come down the road in a lifetime.
There’s a part of us that will always hold onto the child within ourselves.
Esther Kook of Teaneck is a reading specialist and freelance writer.